New edition of 'Mansfield Park' could be illustrated by this Malaysian artist

See Wen Dee Tan's first sketches for Jane Austen's literary classic

By Andrea Tim | Published: 20 Feb 2017

Austen, illustrated
Photo: Wen Dee Tan

Malaysian illustrator Wen Dee Tan is one of 23 artists from all over the world who are vying for the opportunity to illustrate The Folio Society's new edition of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. The novel will add to a collection of four other illustrated Austen classics from the publisher.

"I have been drawing since I was very young, probably before I learned to read," Wen Dee told of her childhood passion, which has since grown into a career with three published children's picture books and a few awards (including 3rd place for the Macmillan Prize 2013). "I used to draw every day, on scraps of paper, used envelopes, Chinese calendar tear-off sheets, in exercise books."

The 41-year-old's career path didn't always centre on art. After working as an IT consultant for over a decade, she returned to the drawing board, eventually graduating with an MA in Children's Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art in 2014.

We spoke to Wen Dee to learn more about her take on Mansfield Park.

What do you love about Mansfield Park?
"I actually don't love it as much as I love Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Sense & Sensibility. But I quite liked the challenge of illustrating Fanny Price [the lead in Mansfield Park] feeling an emotion, with just the subtlest hint of it in her expression. Fanny, as a character, is plain, subdued, timid and always going along with what others demand of her."

Artwork: Wen Dee Tan

How did you translate words into pictures?
"I read the whole book (again) for the project, taking particular note of sections that are full of emotion, where characters are interacting with each other. I kept a record of my visual ideas by quickly sketching any visual scenes that pop into my head while reading the book. I also researched the fashion trends and hairstyle from the era – thank Google and BBC dramas of other Jane Austen works."

Any other books you would love to illustrate?
"Contrary to expectations, I would probably not like to illustrate Pride & Prejudice even though it is one of my favourite novels. That's because it has already been done many times by many illustrators and done very well too, so I feel there won't be anything new that I can bring to it. I would like to illustrate something a little more obscure like North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell."

What's your artistic style?
"The materials or technique I use depends very much on the project. I try to experiment to see what treatment suits it best. I have used water colours, colour pencils, soft pastels, etching, graphite, and charcoal. I love mediums that allow me to work with tone and textures. Of late, I have been experimenting with tinted charcoal a lot, and that is the technique I used for Mansfield Park."

Do you have a favourite artist?
"I don't have just one. I have a whole list of favourite illustrators, and each for different reasons: some for their technique and skill, some for the way they bring out a story or character. Some favourites include Shaun Tan, Lisbeth Zwerger, Beatrice Alemagna, Chris Riddell and Quentin Blake. Each year the list gets longer as I discover more new talent."

What do you do in your free time?
"I am also pursuing other creative projects: I am a needle-felter and I have an Etsy shop called Tokkistore that sells my felted creations. I am also currently experimenting with miniatures made from clay."

We'll find out this Thursday, 23 February 2017, if Wen Dee will be chosen to illustrate The Folio Society's edition of Mansfield Park.


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