'My poor text wilts next to your drawings': letters reveal Hughes's debt to his illustrator

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The Independent Culture

With its evocation of a biblical creature with the audacity to interfere in God's labours, Crow is regarded as one of Ted Hughes's finest works. But, in the words of the former poet laureate, when compared with the dark drawings of his illustrator "my poor text wilts".

"The agony grew/ Crow grinned/ Crying: 'This is my Creation'/ Flying the black flag himself."

With its evocation of a biblical creature with the audacity to interfere in God's labours, Crow is regarded as one of Ted Hughes's finest works. But, in the words of the former poet laureate, when compared with the dark drawings of his illustrator "my poor text wilts".

The adulation in a letter from Hughes to the American artist Leonard Baskin is part of a hitherto unseen archive charting a 40-year collaboration between the two men which the British Library yesterday said it had saved for the nation after paying an undisclosed sum.

Experts said that the 450-item collection of poems, drawings and correspondence dating from 1958 to Hughes's death in 1998 offered a unique insight into just how much the poet and artist relied on each other for creative inspiration.

Michelle Paull, curator of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, said: "They enjoyed a very warm and supportive partnership. You don't think of a writer working so much with their illustrator but they really did feed off each other. They were each other's muses. Hughes regarded Baskin as an equal artist working in a different medium. And as such he talked to him about difficulties with his work or to exchange ideas. He knew that Baskin would understand."

The archive, which has been acquired from Baskin's widow, shows how Hughes deferred to his illustrator and friend on some of his most important work. When the artist sent some drawings to accompany Crow, the cycle of poems published in 1972 about an anthropomorphic bird born of Hughes's obsession with mythology and folklore, the poet replied: "Crow drawings are stupendous - my poor text wilts."

Hughes later said that the poems had arisen from an idea by Baskin, who died four years ago, to write a book about crows, which had long been a feature of his work.

The archive collection, which includes handwritten copies of Hughes's poems and first editions of his writing, also chronicles the friendship between the two men, who first met in America in 1957, a year after Hughes's marriage to Sylvia Plath. Baskin, who also worked as a sculptor and publisher, later moved with his wife Lisa to Devon, where Hughes lived with his second wife, Carol, until his death from cancer. The pair met regularly.

Speaking ahead of the unveiling of the archive at the British Library at St Pancras in central London on Tuesday, Carol Hughes said: "The papers and correspondence are a powerful testament to Leonard and Ted's intense and respectful friendship, and to their influential and creative partnership."

The archive also contains rare examples of the poet's own flirtations with fine art. A hand-cut copy of Hughes's 1975 poem 'The Interrogator' sent to the Baskins has an intricate drawing of a dragon on the reverse with the poet's name written into the mythical beast. The collection also includes a detailed ink drawing of a fly by Hughes.

The British Library, which already holds a large collection of Hughes material, including the manuscripts of the poet and Plath between 1957 and 1962, declined to discuss how much it had paid for the collection.

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