Pauline Baynes: Illustrator who depicted Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's Middle-earth

It is an iconic image of childhood reading: a little girl walking arm-in-arm with a faun beneath an umbrella in a snowy wood. This illustration for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe represents – for millions of people, young and old – the fictional land depicted in the first of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. That is fitting, since Lewis said that the idea for the book had come to him as just such a picture in his head. In the artistry of Pauline Baynes, the author found the perfect visualisation of his imaginary world.

There are certain illustrators whose work is so tightly interwoven with the authors' texts for them to rank as the books' co-creators. John Tenniel left his indelible mark on Alice's curious adventures, E.H. Shepard unforgettably portrayed the world of Winnie-the-Pooh and Baynes's depiction of the country and denizens of Narnia is the definitive representation of the extraordinary land beyond the wardrobe.

She illustrated more than 100 books, as well as creating covers and frontispieces for others, and a vast number of pictures for magazines, advertising art and greetings cards. The hallmarks of her work were a talent for lively, imaginative designs; the ability to create a sense of energy and animation; a confident fluidity of line; a bold use of vibrant, gem-like colours and the subtle employment of negative space.

Notable volumes from her diverse output include A Treasury of French Tales by Henri Pourrat (1953), The Arabian Nights and Fairy Tales from the British Isles, both retold by Amabel Williams-Ellis (1957 and 1960); The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes, compiled by Iona and Peter Opie (1963); Mary Norton's The Borrowers Avenged (1982) and stories by Beatrix Potter, Alison Uttley, Rumer Godden and Enid Blyton.

Many of Baynes's later picture books were devoted to religious subjects such as All Things Bright and Beautiful and The Song of the Three Holy Children (both 1986), Noah and the Ark (1988), In the Beginning (1990) and, last year, an interpretation of Psalm 8, How Excellent is Thy Name! These books reflect the artist's personal quest for spiritual understanding and her fascination with the world's cultures and religions. Next year will see the publication of her suite of illustrations decorating passages from the Koran.

Pauline Diana Baynes was born in 1922, in Brighton, the younger daughter of Frederick Baynes and his wife Jessie (née Cunningham). Her father was a commissioner in the Indian Civil Service, and Pauline spent her first years in Agra, India.

Returning to Britain when she was five, Pauline was educated first at a convent school, of which she retained many unhappy memories, followed by a time at the Beaufront girls' boarding school, Camberley. Her favourite subject at school, she once recalled, was art, "because it was easy". When she was 15, Baynes spent two terms at Farnham School of Art studying design (a skill that would be the bedrock of all her illustrative work) before following her sister, Angela, to the Slade School of Art, then based in Oxford.

Although she later confessed to having wasted her time at the Slade "on coffee and parties" and left without any qualifications, she had innate talent, the determination to hone her craft, a willingness to learn and an openness to inspiration. Her influences were, she said, "firstly, a brilliant elder sister" followed by a catalogue of artists whose work she studied and admired: Edmund Dulac, Rex Whistler, Arthur Rackham, Gustave Doré, the Punch artists R.S. Sherriffs and E.H. Shepard (who would become Pauline Baynes's friend and mentor) and a particular graphic hero, the French illustrator Jacque-Marie-Gaston Onfray de Bréville, who signed his work with the pseudonymous acronym "Job".

In 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Woman's Voluntary Service despatched the two Baynes sisters to work as assistant model-makers with the Royal Engineers' Camouflage Development and Training Centre based in Farnham Castle. It was through a fellow worker, Powell Perry, who belonged to a family firm that printed children's picture books, that Baynes got her first commission, illustrating a book (no copy of which is known) entitled Question Mark.

This was followed by a series of illustrated fairy stories that show that, whilst her skills in draughtsmanship were not yet fully developed, the genesis of what would be her characteristically meticulous and decorative style was already evident.

In 1942, Baynes was drawing charts for the Admiralty Hydrographic Department in Bath, whilst illustrating more children's books, this time for Country Life. Her début as both writer and illustrator, Victoria and the Golden Bird, appeared in 1948 and, in the same year came the commission that was to establish her reputation when a portfolio of artwork submitted to the publisher George Allen & Unwin was shown to J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit.

Tolkien had written Farmer Giles of Ham, a humorous novella about dragons and knight-errantry set in a faux-medieval period, but was dissatisfied with the work of the artist who had been chosen as illustrator. Baynes's work caught Tolkien's eye and she got the job, creating a lively set of pictures that wittily pastiche the look of illuminated medieval manuscripts. So perfectly did Baynes capture the essence of Tolkien's tale that he declared them to be "more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme". He also delighted in reporting that friends had said that her pictures had succeeded in reducing his text to "a commentary on the drawings".

Baynes would later illustrate many authentic medieval stories, all of which show her painstaking research into the detailing of period costume and architecture, and her passion for recreating the texture and fabric of daily life in different ages. Her greatest triumph in this genre were her almost 600 illustrations embellishing the margins of Grant Uden's A Dictionary of Chivalry (1968), a two-year labour that deservedly earned her the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal.

Tolkien's Farmer Giles was the beginning of a long friendship and repeated collaboration between author and artist with Baynes decorating Tolkien's subsequent books The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Smith of Wootton Major and, posthumously, Leaf by Niggle and Bilbo's Last Song.

Tolkien had expressed the hope that Baynes would illustrate The Lord of the Rings, but the book grew into a gargantuan project that rendered that plan impractical. Nevertheless, she created immaculately drawn and exquisitely coloured versions of the author's maps of the lands travelled by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and her slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien's epic was later adapted as a cover for the original one-volume paperback edition – an indispensable prop of the Sixties generation – with its evocative landscape of Middle-earth viewed through a doorway of yellow, over-arching trees.

It was Baynes' collaboration with Tolkien that led to her subsequent association with the septet of children's novels written by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis and published annually between 1950 and 1956: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader', The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle.

Baynes returned to these stories several times, creating memorable cover designs for the Puffin paperbacks; producing new colour illustrations for my book The Land of Narnia (1989), a large-format edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1991) and, three years later, A Book of Narnians. Then, in 1998, she subtly water-coloured all the original line illustrations in all seven volumes to meet the demands of a generation no longer content with black-and-white pictures.

"Met C.S. Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes." That's how Baynes's diary recorded one of only two meetings she ever had with the author whose work she so memorably pictured and with whom she is now inextricably linked.

The relationship between author and artist was cordial and professional but without the depth of respect and affection existing between Baynes and Tolkien. Lewis foolishly flattered Baynes (who loathed the merest hint of sycophancy) whilst, incautiously, carping about some of her pictures to others. She was profoundly wounded when some of his comments came to her ears, especially his devastating criticism that she couldn't draw lions. For readers of the books, however, the pictures were, and have remained, an integral part of the whole culture of Narnia – not even displaced by the big-screen dazzlements of the recent movie versions.

The most unforgettable illustrations in the books are unquestionably those featuring animals – real and mythical – which she drew with authority and variously imbued with dignity, grace and humour: the magisterial Aslan, the diminutive Reepicheep and all the squirrels, badgers, bears and horses (with and without wings) and always – and especially – dogs, a succession of which accompanied Baynes throughout her life and which surely inspired her own 1985 Kiplingesque story, How Dog Began.

Baynes's animal pictures were always a delight, whether in memorable editions of How the Whale Got his Throat (1983) and Black Beauty (1984) or a trio of animal stories by Helen Piers, the first of which, Snail and Caterpillar (1972) was runner-up for the Kate Greenaway Medal. She also created another iconic image with her Puffin paperback cover painting for Richard Adams's Watership Down.

In 1961, Baynes met Fritz Gasch, a German ex-prisoner of war who was working locally as a dog's-meat man. A whirlwind courtship led to their marriage. They were a close couple and Fritz became especially friendly with Tolkien and Shepard, with whom he traded war memories. Fritz's sudden death, in 1988, left Baynes bereft but she poured her energies into her work and produced some of her most accomplished pieces.

Their only child, a son, had been stillborn, but Pauline started "adopting" friends in whose lives she took a tireless interest and with whom she would animatedly debate politics, religion, art, literature and the many other aspects of life about which she had an insatiable curiosity. Late in life she was, in turn, adopted by the family of Fritz's daughter by an earlier marriage who had not seen her late father since her own childhood.

Prolific to the end, Pauline Baynes had recently completed pictures for a children's story of mine about an owl and was busily at work creating a new set of striking illustrations to the timeless fables of Aesop.

In February this year, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was voted the best children's book of all time, beating titles by J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. The enduring success of the book is due, in no small measure, to the work of one of the great illustrators of the 20th century.

Brian Sibley

Pauline Diana Baynes, artist and illustrator: born Brighton, Sussex 9 September 1922; married 1961 Fritz Gasch (died 1988); died Dockenfield, Surrey 1 August 2008.

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