|First published in The Australian Magazine (February 27-28 1999), pp.38-39.
Posted on Mots Pluriels courtesy of the author. This article may not be published, reposted, or distributed without Sarah Turnbull's permission.
Check your bookshelves and your bedside table and you'll probably find some of Jeff Fisher's work. In publishing circles, the expatriate Australian is known as one of the world's top illustrators: "The guy who did Captain Corellli". Did the cover, that is.
Walk into any bookshop and Fisher's unique jacket designs leap from the shelves. Take the 150-odd hardcovers he's done for the Bloomsbury Classics series, or the playful illustrations adorning paperbacks by Louis de Bernières, including the million plus-selling Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Fisher's handpainted letters and figures dance with life; the colours sing; you can't resist pulling out the books for a closer look.
Originally from Melbourne Fisher, 45, his wife Christine and their two girls, have lived for the past five years on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, 60km south-east of Paris. Pulling up outside their home in Veneux-les-Sablons, your first thought is that this is the kind of picturesque French village that throws foreigners into cottage-buying frenzies. Tangled wisteria drapes the stone wall of a lovely 150-year-old house. inside, life centres around a long, kitchen table in chunky wood. Shelves bend with books. "I fell in love with the place as soon as I saw it. I'd looked at so much crap, and as the car pulled up I thought, this is it. But when Christine and the girls arrived they were horrified. It needed so much work. They said, 'You brought us all this way for this dump?'"
With his shaggy, shoulder-length hair, baggy shirt and RM Williams boots, Fisher looks laid-back. He refuses to take himself seriously and frequently jokes at his own expense. At one point he refers to his pictures for a children's book, Machine is the Heart of the World, published in 1981, which was described by an Adelaide journalist as "revolting illustrations in sick colours". Did he criticism hurt? "No, I thought it was pretty amusing," he chukles. "She was probably right, too."
Fisher is also shy. That he is more widely known is due partly to his profession - few illustrators are household names - but also because he shuns publicity. During the interview, we speed through a couple of courage-boosting bottles of wine. Questions about his work elicit long pauses and occasionally a pained "Can we come back to that one?" Later, Fisher explains he has all the answers when he's in front of the paintings, very late at night, alone. He grins. "Tricky time to catch me."
He recently designed a stamp illustrating the theme "Australian immigration", which will be released in Britain as part of a millennium collection. The Australian restaurant in Paris, Woolloomooloo, is being spruced up with his slick paint job in burnt orange and grey. He's even helping sell meat pies to the French, with eye-catching packaging for a new range by the France-based Australian Product Centre.
But painting for himself is what Fisher loves most. His first exhibition of large artworks opened earlier this month at London's Pentagram gallery. Several weeks before the show, in a studio flushed with fading autumn light, he was knee-deep in giant-sized canvases and litres of black paint. Some of the finished paintings hang on the walls, big, bold and striking, radically different from his previous work.
Fisher began drawing and designing professionally in the '70s, after graduating from Melbourne's Preston Institute of Technology. Mostly, he worked on advertising jobs for clients like Puma and the Victorian Gas Board. In 1981 he and Christine headed for England - land of his illustrator-heroes such as Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious - where illustrations was booming. Fisher started at a forgettable freebie magazine, but was soon designing covers for The New Scientist and The New Worker while drawing for papers including The New York Times and England's Sunday Times.
Fisher burst into book jackets when Liz Calder, the founder and managing editor of Bloomsbury Publishing, was producing an anthology called Soho Square and needed a cover designer. "We loved his work immediately," says Calder. "It's unique and absolutely timeless. Jeff is the most distinctive book jacket illustrator I can think of. And covers are very important - they help sell books".
But ten years and two kids later, the thrill of London and cramped living quarters had worn off. The Fishers returned to Melbourne, lasting exactly 18 months. Opportunities were limited and, somehow, his clients couldn't cope with the vast distance between them. Commissions tailed off. Then a friend, who had moved to a small village outside Paris, encouraged the Fishers to join him.
"Trying to fathom the bureaucracy here, getting a carte de séjour [residence permit] going to the Préfecture de Police , it was all such a nightmare, says Fisher. "But once we'd done it, I was thrilled. I still get a kick out of seeing street signs in French."
In a quaint Paris brasserie, where immaculate waiters conscientiously ignore all efforts to order, Fisher is describing the logo he designed for his agent and friend, Hugo Weinberg. Drawn in black, it depicts a corpse in a coffin, an idea which took hold over a boozy lunch. They used the illustration to advertise their services with the caption, "Don't call us, we're too expensive." It generated more work than any other advertisement they'd ever run.
It also says a lot about Fisher's black sense of humour, which bubbles in his work. Once, in Australia, he was awakened at 4am. "What's with the devil?" a New York editor wanted to know, referring to the devil figure in Fisher's drawing. "I said, 'Well, y'know, it's just meant to be funny."
The soaring success of Captain Corelli's Mandolin has given Fisher unprecedented exposure, and de Bernières says the illustrator's book jackets "played a major part in speeding up the rate of my success. Close inspection revealed that ... the artist had actually read the book and paid attention to the contents. This was a major innovation."
But Fisher earned a flat of 600 Livre sterling for the Corelli cover. The design company which commissioned him to do the job scored an award for the jacket, even though all it did was print the type on the back.
"Illustration is a crap profession," says Fisher with feeling. "It's basically a service industry to giant publishing houses. There are a lot of rungs down the line and the final one is the illustrator. Look at the top executives in a news corporation - They're not producing anything, but they're earning much more. Well, piss off, who supplies the publication?"
The second time we meet, Fisher has done some late-night mulling over questions about his latest paintings. "I want to get away from what I've been doing and so I'm reducing everything down to the basics," he says. "I'm trying to find out what it is that makes an image interesting, compelling. In my other work I'm solving other people's problems. It's time to do something for myself."