Peter Milton’s astonishing images are sensual and yet wholly innocent, mysterious and yet patent; they are at once hard and soft, evanescent and marmoreal. They are unmistakable for anyone else’s, and yet each one is a surprise in itself. In the arts there are no equivalences — Tennyson really isn’t matchable with Brahms, or Ryder with Ives, or Bernini with Góngora — but I recognize many of my own impulses, especially those that shaped Little, Big, in Milton: in the way his images repeat themselves with variations, like musical themes, or like musical themes are inverted or reversed; in the way they reflect one another, or remember one another; and in the way they fade without disappearing.
Crowley and I have been talking about publishing a dream edition of
Little, Big since at least 1993. From the beginning we agreed
that Little, Big cried out for an illustrated edition; we also
understood the difficulty of finding an artist whose work would
“match” John’s prose in feeling-tone, theme, and
visionary quality, work that was simultaneously powerful and
understated. We were also concerned that the art not detract from
the reader’s visual imagining of characters and scenes in the
book, as so much book illustration, no matter how superb, so often
does. “That’s not how I imagined that character to
look!” is a common complaint. The ideal accompanying art for
Little, Big should increase the visual possibilities at play
in the reader’s imagination, not foreclose them.
In the Summer of 1995, John Crowley was in Seattle teaching at the Clarion West Writers Workshop. One day I joined him and several of his students for a tour of the Seattle Art Museum’s Renaissance Art Exhibit. Afterwards John and I went up to the Museum’s fourth floor, which was dedicated to 20th Century Art. As we wandered, only intermittently engaged by the work around us, we talked about possible artists for Little, Big, considering and rejecting several, and about what the ideal art for the novel might be like. At that very point in our conversation we turned a corner and came face to face with an etching by Peter Milton (b. 1930), whom neither of us had ever heard of before and whose work to our knowledge neither of us had ever seen. The sight stopped us in our tracks; our mouths dropped open more or less simultaneously, and after an astonished beat we said, “That’s it! That’s who we want!” — our words tumbling over one another in their rush. And we spent the next twenty minutes alternately exclaiming over and silently admiring Milton’s art.
initial conviction that Milton’s art was the ideal foil for
Little, Big only grew with familiarity. The two major books
devoted to his work make a compelling case: The primacy of touch:
the drawings of Peter Milton (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1993)
and Peter Milton: Complete Prints, 1960–1996 (San
Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Indeed, certain of the drawings,
etchings, and prints struck us as being uncannily apt, as if Milton
already knew Crowley’s work intimately. Among these are the
first three works in a series called Interiors (which can be
found in The primacy of touch): Family Reunion, with
its “delicate giantesses,” ghostly children, fixated
self-portrait, and haunted architecture; Stolen Moments; and
Time with Celia. In these and many other works, there is a
prevailing sense that large expanses of time have been compressed
into a single moment, and the farther in you go, the bigger it gets.
When I finally spoke with Peter Milton in the Summer of 2002, it was immediately clear that his creating new art for our edition was out of the question: a single new work was typically taking him a whole year to complete, and at 72 he wasn’t likely to be working faster any time soon. And Milton felt strongly that art created specifically to illustrate literary works almost always ended up diminishing both. Yet his own work has always been insistently referential, filled with echoes of and divergences from every major artistic discipline.
As I suspected, just as Crowley had never heard of Peter Milton, Milton had never heard of John Crowley. I told Milton the story of how we had discovered his work, the sense of recognition we had felt. It was almost, I said, as if Milton had without knowing it been illustrating Little, Big all along, or perhaps it was the other way around, perhaps it was John Crowley who, in his choice of themes and storytelling style, had all unknowing been “illustrating” the art of Peter Milton. Milton was delighted by my playful turnabout, and made his interest clear. So I sent him a copy of Antiquities (as an example of our book production values, but also because it makes a good short introduction to Crowley’s work) and of course Little, Big.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Milton found a kindred spirit in John Crowley:
Given my hermit sensibility and my penchant for the idiosyncratic, it is rare that I venture out into the wilds of collaboration. Yet, curiously, it seems that John Crowley and I have already been working together in parallel universes, and I am thrilled to be joining him in the same dimension through the Little, Big project. I discover in John’s work the lightness of touch and extravagance of scale I find the most satisfying in any artistic enterprise. That paradox of gesture and content combined with John’s inventiveness and elegance of writing makes this project a gift from heaven.
In matters of elegance and sheer design intuition, the choice of John Berry is brilliant in its acknowledgment of Crowley’s extraordinary sensibility. I was already an admirer of Berry’s work with the Crowley short story collection, Antiquities, and I am honored to be part of Little, Big.
— Peter Milton
As my conversations with Crowley and Milton continued, it became clear that they were equally intrigued by the possibilities of having their preexisting art and prose intertwined. In previous publication projects, Milton has encouraged the reproduction of individual works both in whole and in part (as “details”), and enjoys seeing his work reproduced in artful combinations with typography.
In Little, Big, we’ll be reproducing approximately fifteen
of Milton’s drawings, etchings, and prints in their entirety,
but that’s not all: we will also be using as many as eighty details from
those fifteen works, details that will be carefully placed throughout
the text as a visual counterpoint to Crowley’s tale. The
precise choice of details, and their arrangement in the text by book
designer John D. Berry, will be done in close consultation with John
Crowley and Peter Milton. In this way, between writer, artist,
typographer, and editor, we hope to create a dynamic non-equivalence,
a multi-dimensional field of imaginative play for everyone who opens
the book and enters in.
You can find examples of Peter Milton’s work on numerous art gallery websites. But because his pieces are so finely wrought and minutely detailed, they tend not to reproduce well over the internet. The good news is, Milton recently launched his own website, www.petermilton.com, with a large selection of his work in superior high-definition scans. (The site is still under construction; if you happen to find the site down, check it again in a few days.) Here are some other worthwhile sites to check out: