Monday 4 January 2010

The Narnia Covers of Steve Lavis

Well to pick up on where we were with my ongoing Maxfield Parrish reminiscence, some two years or so after being introduced to his work suddenly and almost out of the blue there was a revival of interest in the artistry of this hitherto "illustrators illustrator". This was at least in part engendered by a sumptuous biography which included a lot of reproductions of the great man's work and an accompanying article in The Sunday Times which helped spread the word across the coffee tables of middle England.

The book by Coy Ludwig soon became a staple of art college libraries and once again poster sized reproductions of many of his classic paintings were back in circulation. In addition and hardly suprizingly there was also a whole generation of illustrators paying homage to Parrish with varying degrees of success. A lot of the work inspired by Parrish was in danger of veering towards the slightly tacky but amongst all the variations on a theme of urns, colonnades, misty mountains, gradated blues and androgynous nymphs there were some really lovely pieces of work being created.

One of the best exemplars of the art of creative use of reference points as opposed to slavish imitation is a very dear friend and colleague Steve Lavis. Steve was one of those very motivated young guys who outgrew his art college before he had time to qualify, in fact he ditched his third year as the tutoring at his college was so lamentable and at the age of twenty two was married and living in London building up a career as a successful fantasy artist. His work was sufficiently strong to bring him to the notice of some of the leading commissioners of paperback covers and some of his earliest covers were for Alan Garner, where employing a work method not dissimilar
to Parrish he took photographs of real teenagers and using an epidiascope projected the images onto the board that he was working onto. The results were really alluring here again was that lovely juxtaposition of fantasy made tangible by the alliance of real-world elements and imagination run wild.

The Garner covers were soon followed by a re-working of Pauline Baynes Narnia covers, Pauline's original covers were full of charm but lacked the connectivity with children of the here and now, which Steve's work so adroitly captured. The series of covers had after the usual beauty contest which accompanies such commissions already been assigned to an illustrator (me - Steve I needed that job!!!) but the editorial team were evidently a little unsure and so Steve was invited to produce a painting to the same brief which was to create a cover for "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The resulting artwork was so far ahead of the rest of the competition that Steve then commenced work on the entire run and was also commissioned to create the box that they should sit in for people who wanted to buy the entire run as a collection.

The box artwork is a truly magnificent reworking of Parrish with more than a smattering of Parrish's painting "Romance" which was the end papers for his last and most eagerly sought book "The Knave of Hearts" the original 1925 edition when it does turn up in collectable condition commands four figure sums from Parrish enthusiasts.

Anyway here's Steve's Narnia covers, plus the original artwork for Alan Garner's "Weirdstone of Brisingamen", the texture running throughout the artwork is via toothbrush splatter - lovely stuff!!!


  1. I love looking at old and beautiful art on book covers: proof that earlier masters can still pwn the backsides of today's slicker digital artists with work like this!!

  2. I hope you're referring to Mr Parrish Leeann and not Mr Lavis.

    Mind you Mr Parrish is so old now he's dead, whereas young Mr Lavis has still got a bit of get up and go in him.

    We young fifty somethings are in a continual state of denial, convinced that we're only very recently out of our twenties but you've just got to treat us gently Leeann.

    Sniffle ...

    Mind you I know that Steve will be very flattered by your lovely comments - he really is a true gentleman and like a lot of genuinely talented people, a very modest and unassuming guy.

  3. So Gorgeous!! My very, very favourite covers for Narnia. "Lord of the Rings" would look spectacular in this style, too, as would "The Golden Compass" or "A Wrinkle In Time"

  4. Thanks for the post. I've been trying to figure out who this Stephen Lavis is my whole life! I've had this Narnia set since I was a little kid and it is still one of my prized possessions. I spent hours lost in those cover illustrations! Do you know what recent work he's done?

  5. I would love to see a full set of the complete covers without the irritating bar codes which obscure a big part of the back covers. The first printing of these covers just had a price t the top of the front cover and the back was able to be admired, but with the addition of the barcodes it ruined the front to back effect..shame on them.
    Stephen Lavis is a tremendous illustrator!

  6. I agree....the Narnia covers still set off my imagination

    I think Steve Lavis is really talted too...does he just do cartoons now it seems by his website

    It would be nice to see a website dedicted to his earlier phantasy work, as said perhaps with the original paintings displayed, dimensions give, what media etc


  7. Agreed about the barcodes!

    Loved growing up with these images as a kid.

  8. Is it possible to get scans of the rear covers as well?

    My set is (hopefully) at my parents' house and I really wanted to see these covers in their entirety. Such detail!

  9. I would love to get a print of the Lion Witch Wardrobe cover for our kids bedroom. I also LOVED these books as kids and STILL read them pretty often. I love these covers the best: the others won't do :) There isn't much info on Stephen Lavis about. Is he still alive? IS the author of this blog in contact with him? Love to know.

  10. Hi, and sorry to be so slow in getting back with responses to all your questions.
    But firstly to Samantha, yes Steve Lavis is still with us I am delighted to say and he and I have been friends for over thirty years.
    In terms of technique, you might be interested to know that he created the first four covers in watercolour, inks and (on 'The Magician's Nephew at least) coloured pencil.
    The last three covers in the series were painted in acrylics.
    Two of the paintings were stolen from the publisher and the remaining five were bought by a Tolkein collector.
    Steve retired from this genre of work some twenty years ago and has since concentrated his energies on gallery painting and children's picture books.

  11. I have had my books for over 30 years. I re-read them every year and always spend a long time gazing into these drawings. I feel like I am in Narnia itself. Truly beautiful art.