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Saturday, January 16, 2010

In the Land of Giants

It was the land of the Patagons. Their name appears on old maps of the region (below), and in travellers' accounts which - literally - enlarged upon the prosaic truth by giving these natives gigantic stature. And so the land which we now call Patagonia became to the sixteenth century the Land of Giants. Which, in a way, it is; although the giants are in the landscape, for the giant snow-clad peaks of the Andes mountain chain end on its southernmost shore.

My thoughts drew me to this remote region when I noticed that my *prehistory blog had attracted a visitor from Ushuaia, a settlement overlooking the Beagle Channel at the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentinian Patagonia (the map, below). I enjoy it when my blogs draw what for European me are far-flung visitors, so to have one from what is regarded as the southernmost city in the world was kind of cool.

Although my own travels in South America took me no farther south than Peru's coastal desert, the region of Patagonia is one of those names in geography that reek of travellers' tales and stunning landscapes. So when in 1979 in my local library I came across a book by the then-unknown author Bruce Chatwin whose very title promised to take me there in spirit, I borrowed it and took it home. This was the hardcover edition of In Patagonia, and I devoured it from cover to cover. The book - and Chatwin's own quest - begins with a childhood memory of his grandmother showing him a piece of preserved leathery skin which she duly explained was from a 'brontosaurus'. As Chatwin later learned, it was in fact a fragment of the preserved skin of a Megatherium (the reconstruction by Zdenek Burian, below) - an extinct elephant-sized ground sloth - from a cave in Patagonia. Haunted in later years by this memory, Chatwin sets off to find the location of the creature's former habitat.

Whether or not Chatwin finds it, and what he encounters along the way, makes for exhilarating reading, and the book was still fresh in my thoughts when I was contacted by the art director of Pan Books. He was excited about a new title that Pan planned to publish under their Picador imprint, and wanted me to produce the cover art for them. Well, you can guess the rest. My brief was to use one strongly dominant and rather unreal color for a Patagonian landscape. The view which I chose was of the spectacular *peaks in the Cerro Torre Los Glaciares National Park, and I chose a dominant green tint to suggest the effect of moonlight (below). Most of my cover art took a working week to produce, but my painting for In Patagonia was completed in just two days flat, and went like a breeze.

Unusually for Picador, the art director opted for a 'wrapround'-style format (below) for the illustration, framed by a wide margin. Generally, the shelf-life of a paperback cover is some one or two years before it is reissued with a different cover. But the cover art for In Patagonia went on to establish a personal record for me, the Picador edition going through a total of eighteen reprints with the same cover over a ten-year period, before Penguin Books took over the publishing rights and used their own photographic cover. But as things turned out, that was not quite the end of my professional involvement with the land of Patagonia.

Twelve years after this, the award-winning wildlife documentary film company Partridge Films approached me to produce painted geophysical maps and the title design (below) for their film about the wildlife of the region, Patagonia: A Land Unknown. Sitting in the Partridge Films studio hunched over their editing machine, I had my first shocking look at the sequence of film in which killer whales deliberately beach themselves to seize young seals - a sequence that later also appeared in David Attenborough's own wildlife series.

I had hopes of producing cover art for more of Bruce Chatwin's titles which Picador subsequently published. But by this time a different face was seated at the art director's desk, and it never happened. These things have so much to do with timing, and with the individual personalities involved - and with the luck which makes these disparate factors coincide.

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: In Patagonia, 1979
Medium: Acrylics
Location: Collection of the artist

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin. Picador edition, Pan Books Ltd. 1979
Prehistoric Animals, by J. Augusta and Z. Burian. Paul Hamlyn Ltd. 1960

*Chasing the Raptor
*These peaks were also featured to spectacular effect in Werner Herzog's 1991 film Scream of Stone.

The author Austin Whittall has his own excellent and comprehensive blog about the mysterious and mythical wildlife of Patagonia, both extinct and legendary, at: Patagonian Monsters

1 comment:

  1. Being from Argentina,I found this story extremely alluring.

    I want to contact you about your image, "The Opposite of a Moth". I have a storytelling group in Dallas, TX, I thought your image is stunning and visually conveys a feeling for what we we are trying to do.

    My sight is at

    Do you have an email I can contact you at?

    Much appreciated.


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