Margaret Jones and the Art of Visual Storytelling

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 22-11-2019

In 1982, Margaret Jones received a commission from the Arts Council of Wales to illustrate Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi.(1) Through her lifelong love of mythology and folklore, she was aware that generations had grown up with an intimate knowledge of the characters in these culturally iconic stories, and she knew she could shatter dreams with a single pencil line. Voices from the past were warning her to tread softly.(2) She needn’t have worried. Through her imagination and skill as an illustrator and researcher, Margaret’s images have come to define Welsh mythology as much as the words of the ancient stories themselves.

Margaret was born in Bromley, Kent, during the ‘Golden Age of Illustration’, not long after the end of the first world war. She grew up inspired by the books of Arthur Rackham and the great illustrators of the early 20th Century. As a little girl, she drew on wallpaper, carved a face into the wooden mantleshelf, and sketched a man slipping on a banana skin. Every day she drew, all through her schooling in Birmingham and Southport, and her early married life in India. In 1954, she moved with her young family to Aberystwyth where her husband Basil had accepted a job as a methodist teacher. Passing through Tre Taliesin on the bus, she knew this was where she would raise her children, make puppet shows, and become an illustrator.

An exhibition of Margaret’s paintings at the newly opened Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 1979 led to a commission from Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru to illustrate a new edition of Y Mabinogi. This was her first book commission. She was sixty four, inspired, and apprehensive.

The manuscript arrived from the publisher. Margaret had learned Welsh from reading children’s books, using her eyes rather than her ears, for she found the written language much easier than the spoken. She had no contact with the writer Gwyn Thomas until the end of the project when they met at Yr Eisteddfod.

Margaret recognised that the characters in the stories lived in a real Welsh landscape. These are tales of the tribe, attempts to avoid conflict with Ireland in the Second Branch, of migration and displacement in the Third, and the cruel treatment of women in the Fourth. Margaret knew the role of an illustrator is to complement the text, not replicate it, so she included objects and images from the real world to enhance the magic.

She researched the costumes thoroughly until every shoe and brooch reflected the time, and she drew her own landscape. The picture of Manawydan catching a fish was drawn in Capel Bangor, while the animals and birds were influenced by Ladybird books illustrated by Ynys Môn wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe.

Like Rackham before her, she laid down washes of yellow ochre, prussian blue, or vermillion, which muted the colours painted over the wash, much to the displeasure of the publisher who demanded bright primary colours, as was the deluded fashion of the day. Margaret preferred to explore the darker boundaries between the sentimental and the grotesque, so she wrote to the Arts Council to tell them that Arthur Rackham would never have had this trouble.

The compromise was that she painted four bright introductory letters to each branch.

Margaret finished her paintings for Y Mabinogi in 1982 and it was published two years later after the usual ups and downs common to the book trade.

She went on to illustrate more books for the Arts Council, including her favourite Welsh story, Culwch ac Olwen, followed by Taliesin, which she imbued with her wry humour and understanding that there is an inherent wit and parody in some of these epic tales, which becomes clearer when the story is heard rather than read.

Maps were once seen as mirrors into the ancient world, so it was little surprise when Margaret produced her iconic map of the Mabinogion. This was followed in 1988 by a map of Welsh Folk Tales inspired by Robin Gwyndaf’s collection of stories in St Fagans Folk Museum, which were later published in ‘Chwedlau Gwerin Cymru / Welsh Folk Tales’. At the millenium, the National Library invited Margaret to illustrate a map of the life of Owain Glyndŵr. She even illustrated a map of Narnia which was never published. The National Library also have a set of 12 unpublished drawings for the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym which had been submitted to Gregynog Press as a calendar.

More tales from the folkloric world followed, Madog, Dewi Sant, Arthur, Twm Sion Cati, and her own story of the changeling Nat who leaves the fairy world for the industrial valleys. And she used her memories of her time in India just after partition to illustrate a set of Hindu Tales.

She won the Tir na n-Og Award in 1989, 1993, 2000, and 2003, then in 2008 she collaborated again with Robin Gwyndaf on Llyfr Datguddiad Ioan, which may yet be seen as her masterpiece, perhaps because the stories in the Revelation of John mean more to Margaret than perhaps any other. The book was published privately by Robin in 2008, and is an exquisite piece of work.

Margaret’s visual storytelling has become our eyes into Welsh mythology. Her understandable nervousness in those early days has been turned on its head. Her books inspire other artists and illustrators who are in turn imagining new visions of the ancient tales. And in her hundredth year, she fittingly takes her place alongside illustrators who define the visual mythology of their own countries, Arthur Rackham, Virginia Sterrett, John Bauer, Kay Neilsen, Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Lotte Reiniger, and so many more. And how fitting that the myths of Wales, known for the stories of Branwen, Blodeuedd, Arianrhod, Rhiannon, and Goewin, are defined by another inspiring woman, Margaret Jones.

Peter Stevenson

This is a brief extract from a talk on 20th November 2019 which places Margaret’s work in an international context of illustrators who define their country’s mythology.

(1) Thomas, Gwyn: Kevin: Y Mabinogi, (Welsh Arts Council, 1984)
(2) Jones, Margaret: It Came, To Pass (Apecs Press 20??)

Further reference

  • Cyflwyniad gan Robin Gwyndaf i hunangofiant Margaret Jones, (unpublished forewordto ‘It Came, To Pass’), 2007.

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