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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Life is Full of Surprises

Gilli Allan talks about....
"How I came to illustrate ‘The Tale of King Harald’"

Many years ago I worked as an illustrator in advertising. Over the years I’ve continued to design our annual family Christmas cards and have taken on a few small private jobs; but, to all intents and purposes I gave up commercial art when I was first published as a novelist.
Scroll forward many years to January 2013, when my son, Tom Williams, started a contract with the British Museum, as Project Curator for the ‘Vikings - Life and Legend’ exhibition, scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.  My husband, Geoff Williams, and I were thrilled.  It was a great opportunity for our son and I had no inkling at that time that the ‘Vikings’ would involve me in any way, other than as Tom’s supporter and cheer-leader.

It wasn’t long, however, before Tom conceived the idea that the British Museum should produce a children’s book to accompany the exhibition, which he would write. He proposed to base a story on the life of Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson, the Viking king who was beaten and killed by our own King Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, just before the battle of Hastings. Tom asked me if I was interested in illustrating the book. His vision was an ornamented ‘arts and crafts’ style, in black and white, with borders and decorative panels.  How could I say no? For one thing I wanted to support my son in this venture. His idea was far more likely to be given a hearing if he already had an illustrator on board. It was also a wonderful and totally unexpected opportunity for me, and the style of illustration he envisaged was one I was comfortable with.  I might be scared stiff, having never done any book illustration, but I sensed it was a once in a lifetime chance which, if it came to fruition and someone else was commissioned to illustrate the book, I would forever regret turning down.

I managed to push the idea to the back of my mind; it was still a purely theoretical concept, but when Tom pitched the idea to the British Museum in the early summer of 2013, they were immediately interested. What had I let myself in for? Time went by and it was the end of August before the decision was made to give Tom and me the go ahead to produce a sample first chapter.  At this point there were no still guarantees but, if the project was agreed, the timetable was looking increasingly tight. The deadline was the end of October. 

Tom sent me the opening passage of chapter one, and the brief for an illuminated capital letter and two illustrations.  Instead of allowing myself to worry about whether or not I was capable of doing it, I just launched myself into the job.  There wasn’t time to fret and to get tense.

When the commissioning editors at British Museum Press approved the project, I was thrilled ... and terrified. We had the go ahead but they didn’t want the kind of stylised and decorative illustrations that I felt most comfortable with. And they wanted far more than I’d envisaged.  I was contracted to produce an illuminated capital, as well as four illustrations, including at least one full-colour plate, for each chapter of a five chapter book to be called ‘THE TALE OF KING HARALD - The Last Viking Adventure’.  

Until this happened I knew nothing about Harald Hardrada, other than that his life intersected with English history at Stamford Bridge, in 1066. His exploits appear in the Icelandic Sagas and although some of the more extraordinary details may be fanciful, the majority of this story is based on historical fact. Independent evidence confirms the vast range of his travels through Europe and into the Middle East, his battles, his influence and his ruthlessness. He wasn’t awarded the nickname “Hardrada”, which means Hard Ruler, for nothing.  Never did I expect that at this time in my life I’d be illustrating Viking long-ships, eleventh century Constantinople, Jerusalem and Novgorod, and an elaborate map detailing Harald’s travels,  the aftermath of battle, a burning village, not to mention a polar bear arriving at the court of King Harald (and there were many more in a similar vein).  

As it turned out, it was easy working with Tom, as we are so in tune and know immediately what the other means. This was essential, as we did not see one another face to face throughout the whole project. Thank goodness for the Internet. Doing the illustrations in batches, chapter by chapter, and getting them agreed before seeing what was next, meant I was never overawed by the amount of work still ahead of me.  This approach also meant that British Museum Press could see that the project was on track, and when Tom had not finished writing the book by the end of October (the day job - curating a ground-breaking exhibition - was making huge demands on his time) the deadline was extended.  It was all wrapped up by the middle of December.  

One of the very welcome bonuses of the whole project was that it gave me the idea for our 2013 Christmas card!

The ‘Vikings - Life and Legend’ exhibition opened on March 6, to great acclaim. That same evening there was a glittering event (to all intents and purposes a private view) where my husband and I mingled with the great and the good.  But we were not there as Tom’s parents.  I’d received an invitation in my own right (my husband was my plus one!) as the illustrator of the book written by Thomas J T Williams, which was piled up in the museum’s shops. The exhibition goes on until June 22, but if you can’t get to it, the book is available from the British Museum on-line shop or from Amazon and all good bookshops. My son and I are hoping that it will be a huge success, although any benefit to us will only be in reputation.

This book ‘THE TALE OF KING HARALD - The last Viking Adventure’ contains not only the story of King Harald Sigurdsson and his adventures. There are factual sections interleaved between the chapters, which describe the culture, beliefs, achievements and conquest of the Vikings, with drawings of their artefacts, weapons and jewellery. Though written by Tom Williams, these passages were illustrated in-house, by William Webb.


  1. It was a strange time, for me. I felt my own life had been invaded by the Vikings!

  2. And just to explain the Christmas card - "Shall I tell him about the helmet or will you?" - the Vikings did not wear horned helmets!

  3. What a fun project, Gilli. Awesome. You did good, girl!!

  4. Lovely post, Gilli. I bought the book when I was at the exhibition and it's next on my list to read. Anne Stenhouse

  5. Incredible. Wish I could draw like that. Well done Gilli.

  6. Wow, such talent! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for your kind comments. Despite my anxiety it was good fun to do. I am very pleased I said "yes".

  8. We should always say 'yes'. We never know where it might lead. Great article, Gilli. Have Tweeted it.

  9. Excellent, Gilli. What a brilliant project to be involved with. Are you going to Hay-on-Wye?

  10. Thank you, Linda. It takes a while to learn that lesson, doesn't it? I am not currently planning to go to Hay, Jill. My son and I are rather in the hands of the British Museum Press. If they decided they want to feature the book there, I could be persuaded.

  11. Gilli, What a wonderful experience. You are so talented. I'd like to get a copy of this book. Thanks for sharing.


  12. Hi Kelley, thank you for popping over and having a look. There are many more illustrations and, if you're interested in early history, the story is well told and fascinating. But I would say that, wouldn't I? gx