Nancy and the Giant Peach

Posted by
Alisa Crisp, Project Curator at the Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
10:00am, 23rd July
Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert

A new exhibition, James’s Peachy Pictures, has just opened at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. It shows beautifully detailed drawings by the artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert from the first edition of James and the Giant Peach.

Published in 1961, James and the Giant Peach was the first book that Nancy illustrated – as well as the first book Roald Dahl had written specifically for children. In fact, when Nancy first received Roald’s manuscript, she thought there had been a mistake! She had read and loved his adult books and stories.

The first insects she drew were sketches to show Roald and his editors that she could draw anthropomorphised insects. This one is a grasshopper in a pilot uniform, modelled after Roald and his career in the RAF.

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s aviator grasshopper (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

Above: Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s aviator grasshopper (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

Nancy did a huge amount of research to get the insects as accurate as possible and to ensure that she correctly presented the plants and landscape of the British countryside. As a result, her illustrations are incredibly detailed in their depiction of the insects and background scenery.

Nancy and Roald corresponded over a few of the preliminary drawings. Their letters were passed along by their Editor, Virginie Fowler. They discussed how gnome-like the Old Man at the beginning of the book should be, as well as making sure the apron on Miss Spider was just right.

Character study of Miss Spider (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

Above: Character study of Miss Spider (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

Nancy drew 24 illustrations for the final book, four of which were full-colour plates that would be printed separately and added into the book. For the colour images, Nancy drew first in black with pen, brush and India ink, before the drawings were reduced to the page size. She then drew each colour onto a separate transparent acetate sheet – called Dinobase – over the ink drawings. Nancy drew the colours using Prismacolor pencils – a type of waxy pencil. The waxy surface would attract the ink, and the rough surface of the acetate would repel it, allowing a colour image of what Nancy had drawn to be printed. Nancy drew the ‘spot’ drawings, black illustrations spread throughout the book, with waxy Prismacolor pencils on Dinobase. For the first edition, many of the illustrations had added highlights in red, again drawn on a separate transparent Dinobase sheet.

One celebratory colour image near the end of the book shows James and his companions being treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York. These parades started in 1886 where throngs of people would line the streets cheering and waving to celebrate a special hero or event. Scraps of paper were thrown out of office windows as the parade went by.

Colour plate showing the ticker tape parade (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

Above: Colour plate showing the ticker tape parade (Copyright Nancy Ekholm Burkert)

This whole image only uses the three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – the only colours Nancy used throughout the book. Working over a lightbox meant Nancy could see how the colours would combine in the final image. Pre-separated art, as this process was called, was cheaper than full colour reproduction.

The crowd are particularly life-like; Nancy used her family and friends as inspiration and to show her love and affection for them. She also honoured Roald Dahl and their publisher, Alfred Knopf, with an appearance. Roald has his work tool of choice behind his ear – a pencil – and a cat on his shoulder, representing Edward the Conqueror, the short story he wrote just before James. Alfred Knopf is sporting a colourful, striped hat.

Some of our favourite illustrations will be on display at the Roald Dahl Museum this summer (2019) in our James’s Peachy Pictures exhibition, where you can feel the story of James and the Giant Peach through sounds, smells, colours, images, and books of course!