The Wizarding World of Jim Kay: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone



Animage Minerva McGonagall killing time until baby Harry is delivered on p. 2.

I’ve been watching Pottermania unfold since fall 1998, when Bonnie Bernstein, Cotsen’s first Outreach Coordinator, predicted glory for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by a then unknown British woman writer.   I’ve gone back and forth about collecting Harry Potter in depth for Cotsen.  Strictly speaking, the original Scholastic edition didn’t have enough illustrations to be in scope as Mary Grandpre was commissioned to create just chapter and jacket art for it.  Her unpublished color illustrations were only made available recently.

Harry Potter lends itself to full illustration, but it seemed to take a long time to commission this edition.  J. K. Rowling is one of the very few children’s book authors consulted about the choice of illustrator for her works, so she must have been on board when Bloomsbury announced in 2013 that Sorcerer’s Stone would be reissued in 2015 lavishly illustrated by Jim Kay, the 2011 recipient of  the Greenaway Medal for Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. 

Kay’s wizarding world has nothing of Grandpre’s pastel “soft geometry.”  If the publisher wanted to kickstart the creation of a body of contrasting interpretations appealing to different parts of the Harry Potter fan base, Kay was a perfect choice, as he tends towards the dark.  His Gothic-tinged style adds a more contemporary fantasy-sci-fi-horror twist that makes Harry Potter look edgier than it is, although not as unsettling as the imaginary worlds of Mervyn Peake.

With carte blanche to create an indelible sense of place, Kay rises to the occasion in these representations of two key locations: Hogwarts and Diagon Alley.


View of Hogwarts on the front free endpaper.

There’s none of Hogwarts’s grand thrusting geometry in the whimsical four-page spread of Diagon Alley.  Will Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade inspire something similarly playful in the colorful, cluttered, surrealistic manner of  Colin Thompson?


Detail of one of Diagon Alley’s most famous emporiums on p. 64.

Fleshing out the creatures in Hogwarts also plays to Kay’s  artistic strengths–and a peculiar predilection.  Unlike Ron Weasley, Kay does not suffer from arachnophobia.   Here is an elaborate border design about the life-cycle of a moth from George McGavin’s Bugs, the next children’s book Kay illustrated after A Monster Calls.   It makes a nice contrast to the headpiece for chapter 15, “The Forbidden Forest.”


Detail from “The Life of a Bug” spread.


Where’s the spider on p. 196? Kay’s curatorial experience at Kew Gardens is evident in the sensitive handling of the leaves.

Rowling doesn’t provide much detail about the inside of the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive, but Kay draws it as a paradise of spiders, which makes for a pretty nasty bedroom.  Imagine the attention the monstrous Aragog will receive in The Chamber of Secrets…


Harry at home on p. 16.

Kay’s warty, lumpy, scaly things look as if you could reach out and touch their disgusting bits.  Three illustrations are devoted to the dim mountain troll  and four illustrations of dragons, including an exquisite guide to dragon eggs, the somewhat schematic double-page spread of the Norwegian Ridgeback, and the headpiece of baby Norbert, whose fangs and wickedly curving claws only Rubeus Hagrid could love.


Little Norbert staring down the reader on p. 183.

All the things that go bump in the night down Hogwarts’ corridors are deliciously menacing, especially the ghosts on pages 94-5 that look like animated three-dimensional x-rays.  The transparent figure of Nearly Headless Nick with the gaping hole above the ruff is gross yet elegant.  His fatuous expression makes him look more pathetic than scary.


Gryffindor’s ghost, Sir Nicholas Mimsy-Porpington, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Basil Fawlty on p. 103.

Kay has said that it was critical for him to establish character in the first of the seven-volume fantasy-cum-school-story.  His representations of the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of Rowling’s wizarding world do not hit off their characters quite as  successfully as the magical and macabre ones, but I’m looking forward to see how he develops them in future volumes.

Among the full-page color illustrations is the sumptuous series of portraits, where  Hogwarts’ faculty members are immortalized in the high Northern Renaissance style.  Dumbledore is shown with the signature knitting needles and sherbet lemon candy and McGonagall is resplendent in green velvet (I am counting the portrait of the back of Quirrel’s turbaned head as a double portrait of him and the Dark Lord).  Kay’s models look something like the actors in the films, with the exception of the potions master.   His Snape may disappoint the fans of the late Alan Rickman’s fans. Rickman may have been twenty years older than the character he played, but when he strode away, black robes billowing, or cradled Lily’s body in his arms, it didn’t matter.   Perhaps Kay is still thinking how to put his mark on Harry Potter’s most complicated character.


The potions master.


Harry under a Sorting Hat pieced together from fabric scraps too splendid by half on p. 99. If he is afraid of being placed in Slytherin, his expression does not show it.

The portraits of the major characters raise an awkward question about anxiety of influence.  There’s every reason to think that films impress themselves on artists’ imagination the same way Tenniel’s Alice has.  But could Kay be under pressure (spoken or unspoken) to make the characters conform more or less to their film likenesses so as not to ruffle the fan base?. Or is he paying tribute to the many great British actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Imelda Staunton, and Jim Broadbent whose performances as Sirius Black, Teddy Lupin, Dolores Umbridge, and Horace Slughorn are so memorable?

If I were to take issue with an aspect of Kay’s interpretation of Sorcerer’s Stone, it would the handling of the theme of friendship.  Enjoyable as the slapstick pictures for the Privet Drive section are, there could have been fewer, as they are less important overall than scenes where Harry, Ron Hermione, and Draco form the alliances and enmities that play out over the series.  Draco being fitted in his Slytherin robes, with Madame Malkin’s tape measure rising up like a snake poised to strike, brilliantly establishes him as Harry’s antagonist, even without Harry in background.  But with Harry nowhere to be seen in the picture of Draco stealing Neville’s Remembrall, it is a gorgeous fall landscape, not the unfolding of a dramatic rivalry.


Draco taunting Harry and Neville with the Remembrall high over head on p. 122.

The busy full-color plate of the wizard’s chess board fails to communicate the urgency of Ron, Hermione, and Harry racing to reach the philosopher’s stone before Voldemort.  Instead showing Ron’s cool nerve as he advances  Harry and Hermione across the board, Kay draws a crowd of playing pieces that threaten to crush the children.  To an American, the pieces look more like cocktail lounge tikis than grotesques based on the  Lewis chess set.


Playing wizard chess on p. 226.

Maybe it was a conscious decision to keep the illustrations featuring two or more people to a minimum, as Kay seems more comfortable drawing posed single figures.  He shows that he can create an emotional encounter between a child and an adult.


Harry notices Dumbledore after looking into the Mirror of Erised for the third time on p. 173.

Or a child’s sense of embarrassment at being in public with a grown-up who is nice but peculiar.  Perhaps there will be more intimate images like these in the later volumes.


Harry and Hagrid in the Underground on p. 56.

Sorcerer’s Stone in red paper-covered boards is a nice piece of commercial bookmaking for $39.99.  The atmospheric double-page spread of Harry on platform 9 3/4 is repeated on the dust jacket and the gold foil stamping and embossing on the jacket is more tasteful than tacky.  Two lovely views of Hogwarts appear on the endpapers.   The book opens flat so no text or illustrations disappear into the gutter (caveat: some Amazon customers complained they received copies with damaged or defective bindings).   The heavy coated paper pages has been printed with streaky ink washes and ink splatters to give them a well worn and vaguely medieval look.  Overall the illustrations are rather well printed, although some pictures are not as sharp as the digital previews, according to Potterheads.  There’s even a red ribbon marker and imitation headbands.

The  large trim size allowed for setting the text in two columns which gave a great deal of leeway to the uncredited graphic designer.  Smaller ovoid illustrations are placed between columns, long narrow rectangular images are run across the bottom or down the side of a page, and little square vignettes are tucked in corners.  The two-column format also made it possible to fit the text and 115 illustrations into a 252-page volume measuring 27 x 23 cm. about 1 inch thick (the original edition was 320 pages, 20 cm. tall and an inch thick).

The Kay edition will look grand on a table or on a shelf, but the original Scholastic edition was more reader-friendly.  Devouring the Kay Potter under the covers with a flashlight seems as unlikely as throwing it in a tote for beach reading.  And volumes 4-7 are much longer then the first three, so will the number of illustrations be increased, making it necessary to issue Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows in one stout or two slimmer tomes?

With the demands of producing a new volume every year between 2016 and 2022, let’s hope Kay can keep up the pace and the quality…  This fall I’ll be waiting in line for my copy of Chamber of Secrets.


The four friends celebrating the Great Hall on p. 245. To be continued!


Curator’s Choice: An Early Alphabet of Puzzle Pictures in French

When people ask me to name my favorite book in the collection, I never have a good answer on the tip of my tongue.  “It’s like being asked to pick your favorite child” or “Whatever I’m working on right now”  are just dodges to avoid saying I like one and only one wonderful thing best out of thousands of possibilities–some of which are yet to be seen.

If a heartless desperado were holding my cat for ransom and the conditions for her release were to admit to a favorite book, it might be possible if I could stick to one genre.  Like the alphabet.

One of my favorite alphabets is L’alphabet personnife ou Les lettres rendues sensibles par les figures de 25 enfants in action et portant le nom des 25 lettres elles-memes  [The Personified Alphabet or the Letters Animated by the Figures of 25 Children in Action Bearing the Names of the Letters].  Cotsen just purchased the first edition of 1801, where it joins a copy of the 1809 third edition.

7307668tp151195tpL’Alphabet personnifie is incredibly rare in any edition, which probably accounts for  lack of comments in the scholarly literature.  The legendary Gumuchian catalogue of 1930 describing 6251 rare children’s books had a copy of the third edition, which was also listed in the bibliography of Segolene le Men’s Les abecedaires francais illustres du XIXe siecle (1984).  Penny Brown may never have seen it either because there’s no mention in the discussion of Freville in her Critical History of French Children’s Literature (2008).

Its author Anne-Francois-Joachim de Freville is a rather interesting person, even if he is not among the immortals of French children’s book writers.  Freville’s most famous works were two collections of anecdotes about extraordinary real children.  Vies des enfans celebres (1798) included the story of Irish youngster Volney Becker, who fended off a shark attack on his father, only to be bitten in half while being lifted to safety on a boat.  Vies circulated in English translation under the title The Juvenile Plutarch between 1801 and 1820. The second collection, Beaux traits du jeune age (1813), closes with an ambitious proposal for a pantheon to be built to honor the memory of notable children.   He could be more more fanciful, as this delightful group in the frontispiece to the fourth edition of his Contes jaunes (1804) makes clear.


A teacher by profession, Freville was arrested for Jacobite sympathies but kept his head when the revolutionary tribunal acquitted him.  After Robespierre’s fall, Freville’s politics veered to the far right.  During the Directory, he continued to produce books that incorporated a range of educational games designed to turn children into active participants in the pleasure of learning.

freville jeu

A.-F.-J. Freville, Jeu d’alphabet, chiffres, et symbols.

L’Alphabet personnifie is perhaps the most ingenious and charming of them all, although dog owners would probably give the edge to his collection of stories about celebrated canines.

The design of  L’Alphabet suggests that Freville was no ordinary teacher.  Like many enlightened educators who came after John Locke, Freville tried to invent ways to reduce the drudgery associated with learning to read.  Of course, he recommended using illustrated texts for that purpose, but on a different and more ambitious plan.  While it was true that children enjoyed illustrated alphabets of  animals in their primers, he observed,  they usually retained more information about the animals’ appearance and characteristics than they did of the letters of the alphabet, the real object of the exercise.

A better approach, Freville argued, was to anthropomorphize the letters, because children would take greater interest in the symbols if they resembled children the same age as themselves engaged in enjoyable activities (the different costumes and hats were also supposed to be a source of amusement).  The skillful use of alliteration increased the fun of learning, as well as an way of organizing the visual material so that it was more likely to impress associations on children’s minds.  Verbs are the heart of Freville’s method, which is somewhat unusual, as alphabets are more likely to focus on  substantives or nouns rather than actions.

Here is the letter “A,” impersonated by a boy watering [arrose].  When the children turn to the description of the plate, they will discover that it contains other objects beginning with the letter A: “Le petit Arlequin, arrose un Artichaut, fleuri dans son jardin” [Little Harlequin waters an artichoke blooming in his garden].   But if they look at the picture again, they will find even more objects whose names begin with “A” the description omits–“abeille” [bee] and “arraignee” [spider] to mention just two.  The engraver signed his name below the greenery in the lower right and I think it says “J. Le Roy.”

151195leaf1This being a French alphabet, the pleasures of the table must be shown.   Here is “B” for “boit” [drink] and “M” for “mange” [eat].

151195leaf2151195leaf13And the noblest of the fruits also makes an appearance in “V” for “vendange” [grape harvest].  More French fruits can be seen in a previous post on a new acquisition.

151195leaf22Plenty of ways to work off the food and drink are also illustrated, such as “H” for “hache” [chop] and “N” for “nage” [swim].

151195leaf8151195leaf14The boy is also shown practicing his handwriting in “E” for “ecrit” and playing in “J” for “joue.”151195leaf5151195leaf10Did Cotsen really need both editions?   A careful comparison showed that there are quite a few differences in the accompanying reading exercises, which are too complicated to describe here.  The comparison also reveals that in the 1801 edition, “Z” pursued the zebra through the woods completely naked, whereas in the 3rd edition, he is draped for the hunt in a diaphanous robe, still with no shoes.









Perhaps the revised plate is poking a little fun at the merveilleuses, the fashion victims of their times, who appeared in dresses so sheer as to leave very little to the imagination….


An English satirist like Isaac Cruikshank was probably not the most objective observer of French fashion…