Richard Chopping would never have seen himself as a printmaker – later in life he came to see himself more as an author than an artist. But his career began at the age of 25 with these illustrations for British Butterflies, in the series of Puffin Picture Books.
Chopping’s love of nature was evident in Butterflies in Britain (1943). Typically concise was his description of the Painted Lady, which:
“chooses a small patch of ground by the roadside which it patrols regularly like a soldier on guard, returning fearlessly when disturbed… both male and female have on their wings an orange patch like a rough map of the British Isles.”
He had been introduced by the illustrator Kathleen Hale to Noel Carrington, editor of the series. She had made the lithographs for the Orlando books and significantly enough Chopping both lithographed and wrote what must be the finest of the Puffin books.
He had trained, after a fashion, at Cedric Morris’ school of art in East Anglia, never believing that he had really grasped perspective even. That stood him in good stead as you can see from the shallow depth and subtlety of tone in these memorable illustrations. He was probably also lucky with his editor who decided to offer him a subject that relied on more colours than most his other artists were allowed.
Page after page, they spring out at you, fresh and spectacular, as the day they rolled off the press. Indeed, they were so successful, Allen Lane, the publisher of both Puffin and Penguin Books, then gave him his head with the illustrations for the 22-volume British Wild Flowers.
Readers will perhaps notice the pattern in recent posts – the vigour and intensity of youthful vision. I think Chopping sums it up. British Butterflies was published in 1943, all the illustrations drawn directly onto the plates, which were printed by WS Cowell at Ipswich. They are still available for next to nothing in both paper and board covers, on ebay and in the more eclectic second-hand book shops around the country.
After seven years work for both Chopping and the writer Frances Partridge the whole project was dropped due to the expense involved. What it would have been like no one probably now knows. All we have are these little books on cheap paper as testament to the belief that fine illustration could be both popular and affordable and that art and education had a common purpose.