Richard Chopping: Versatile illustrator best known for his distinctive Bond book jackets
Wednesday 23 April 2008
Richard Chopping is probably best known today as the creator of dust-jackets for the publisher Jonathan Cape's Ian Fleming James Bond novels. From Russia with Love (1957), with its pistol and flower design, the skull and rose for Goldfinger (1959), and the slightly eerie spyhole and Ian Fleming's name-plate artwork for For Yours Eyes Only (1960) are distinctively Chopping's work.
The creator of these confections, with their meticulous attention to detail and delicacy of colour, was, however, much more than a book-jacket designer. By the time they appeared, Chopping had established a reputation as a versatile illustrator who was noted for his depictions of natural objects such as butterflies, flowers, insects and fruit, based on close observation, as well as being a sympathetic teacher, busy exhibitor and author.
Richard Wasey Chopping was born in 1917 in Colchester, Essex – Wasey was an old family name. His father was an entrepreneurial businessman from a milling family, was himself a miller and store owner and eventually became mayor of Colchester. Chopping's twin brother died when young. He also had an older brother, a pilot killed on a Pathfinder mission over Europe in the Second World War.
Chopping began painting as a small boy, encouraged by his art master at Gresham's School, at Holt, in Norfolk. The future composer Benjamin Britten and spy Donald Maclean were his contemporaries at Gresham's, and Britten remained a friend.
In the late 1930s Chopping attended the London Theatre Studio and learned stage design under Michel St Denis. Next, and important to him, came his period as student, cook and housekeeper at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing run by Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. They had opened the school in 1937, and it was eventually based for many years at Benton End near Hadleigh, in Suffolk. Lucian Freud, who had enrolled in the early summer of 1939, was another student of this unique school.
At this rural paradise, Morris and Haines aimed to "provide an environment where students can work together with more experienced artists in a common endeavour to produce sincere painting". Morris, a great plantsman, created a wonderful garden. Chopping learned a great deal from him, as much through observation as direct instruction.
Morris painted a fine portrait of Chopping in 1941, his subject dark-haired, sloe-eyed, duffel-coated and alert. It was included in the Tate Gallery's 1984 Morris exhibition, illustrated in the catalogue.
From 1942 until 1949, Chopping was able to use his great abilities as a plant draughtsman working on Penguin Books' projected 22-volume flora of the British Isles. Chopping would draw every flower, the Bloomsbury writer Frances Partridge supplying the accompanying text. But Allen Lane had over-stretched himself on this, one of Penguin's great failures. The plug was pulled after seven years, by which time the project had only got as far as the end of the letter C.
From the early 1950s Chopping was able to pass on his knowledge of plant drawing to others as a part-time teacher at Colchester School of Art. He left in 1961 to teach at the Royal College of Art, where he was incidentally a popular feature of the end-of-term Christmas stage shows. Chopping worked under the Marquess of Queensberry in the ceramic department, where his plant-drawing skills and ability to paint butterflies and flowers on porcelain were much valued.
He eventually transferred to the general studies course teaching creative writing and continued with this until his retirement aged 65. When in 1959 he shared an exhibition at the Minories, Colchester with Denis Wirth-Miller, Chopping was already quoted as saying that he considered himself more a writer than a painter.
He was by then well established as an author and illustrator of natural history and children's books. Butterflies in Britain (1943) was followed by A Book of Birds, The Old Woman and the Pedlar, The Tailor and the Mouse and Wild Flowers (all 1944) and Mr Postlethwaite's Reindeer (1945), stories broadcast by the BBC.
When Chopping's first novel, The Fly, was completed, his friend Angus Wilson steered it towards David Farrer at Secker & Warburg for consideration who, commenting that he found it "a perfectly disgusting concoction", passed it on to his young colleague Giles Gordon as a first editing job. In his 1993 memoir Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement?, Gordon tells how he was "determined to like the novel", believing that "more, and no doubt better, books would follow. The Fly was indeed disgusting."
Chopping was invited to the newly married Gordon's tiny London flat, arriving with a crate of champagne for what turned out to be a bizarre weekend's editing. Gordon, who found Chopping "a most fastidious person", was convinced that The Fly, which appeared in 1965, "was sufficiently sordid to appeal to voyeurs, and if Chopping were to adorn it with one of his famous dust-jackets it could be a succès de scandale; and so it proved." Chopping's more mundane second novel, The Ring (1967), "sank with very little trace, even in the second-hand bookshops".
Chopping exhibited widely. He had showed a couple of works in a mixed exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1939, and others followed. In 1956, he shared a show of paintings and drawings at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery with Robin Ironside, the painter and theatre designer, and the Australian artist Kenneth Rowell. Chopping was also in "20th Century British Painting" at the influential New Art Centre in 1977.
He also received painting commissions. At the time of the Minories show, he had recently finished a still life as a 50th birthday present for Prince Ludwig of Hesse from his family and was completing a portrait of Lord Astor with a view of Cliveden. In addition, there were solo exhibitions. His distinctive trompe-l'oeil and flower watercolours were at the Hanover Gallery in 1953; later shows included the Aldeburgh Festival Gallery in 1979, which surveyed his paintings and graphic work from 1940 onwards.
A 1956 three-man exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, with Francis Bacon as the main attraction and separate rooms given over to pictures by a French aristocrat and Chopping, led to the Bond dust-jacket commissions. Chopping's flower paintings and trompe-l'oeil works were upstairs, as he remembered, "in a little gallery at the back, that was like a kind of long lavatory".
Bacon took Ann, Ian Fleming's wife, in to see his own work, Chopping recalled. "Then he took her upstairs to see mine, which was very good of him, and Ann went back to Ian and said, 'Well, you ought to get this chap to do your next book jacket.'" They met at one of the Flemings' artistic salons, where Fleming granted Chopping the commission for From Russia with Love.
Although the first edition jacket announced that it had been designed by the author, Chopping later said:
He in no way designed it. He did tell me the things he wanted on it. It had to be a rose with a drop of dew on it. There had to be a sawn-off Smith & Wesson. We never discussed the type of revolver we would use. It had to be that one.
Chopping and the artist Denis Wirth-Miller lived together for some 70 years from the time that Wirth-Miller was 21, Chopping 20. Wirth-Miller helped foster Chopping's artistic talent. They bought a house in 1944 in Wivenhoe, Essex, but as it was a port and ship-building centre and it was a wartime restricted area they could not move in until 1945. Eventually, they were the first in Colchester to register a civil partnership, in December 2005.
Chopping and Wirth-Miller were founder-members of a strong artistic colony in Wivenhoe. It received a boost in 1970 when the journalist George Gale invited the politician Edward Heath to open the new Wivenhoe Arts Club, with its own exhibition hall. It attracted not only visual artists but writers such as Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis and Peregrine Worsthorne.
For many years Francis Bacon had a home and studio in Wivenhoe, and Chopping was the subject of his Two Studies for Portrait of Richard Chopping, 1978. "Denis Wirth-Miller was a deep bosom-buddy of Francis from the 1940s," says Chopping's executor and friend Daniel Chapman. "When Richard and Denis had holidays, they were often extended ones in France, Francis with them. They were with Francis in Paris when his partner killed himself in an hotel." The suicide of George Dyer took place two days before Bacon's 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais.
Bacon eventually gave up his home in Wivenhoe, but he, Chopping and Wirth-Miller remained close and, even after Bacon's death in 1992, Chopping and Wirth-Miller remained closely concerned with Bacon's affairs.
Chopping's final years were blighted by sight problems, when first one, then the other, retina detached. He could just read, but could not see a picture and, although unable to paint, determinedly kept on with his writing as best he could.
Richard Wasey Chopping, artist, teacher and writer: born Colchester, Essex 14 April 1917; registered civil partnership 2005 with Denis Wirth-Miller; died Colchester 17 April 2008.
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