Yvonne Gilbert (she’s since dropped the ‘Anne‘) is not a hard woman to track down. Her website is full on examples of her work, largely comprised of children’s book illustrations. She is one of the most prolific and acclaimed illustrators practising today, ranging from books and postage stamps to posters and, of course, record sleeves. Her work is characterised by an exceptional sense of composition and design, and a meticulous attention to detail. She studied at both Newcastle and Liverpool Colleges of Art and, after lecturing full-time for five years, she became a freelance illustrator in 1975.
She has worked with a number of the major publishing houses and won many major national and international awards. In 1985 she won The Golden Stamp Award, and designed The World’s Most Beautiful Stamp for the British Post Office. Books illustrated include: Children’s Classics to Read Aloud, A Dictionary of Fairies, Dracula, Goodnight my Angel, The Iron Wolf, Mythology, The Wild Swans and Wizardology. She now lives in Toronto, Canada and was more than happy to answer my questions via email and supply images, even going to the trouble of getting permission from Paul Rutherford to show an unpublished shot from an old photo session.
Firstly, how did you become friends with Holly?
I lived in Liverpool, studied art there. A lot of artists/musicians shared a big house – at one time Jayne Casey was on the ground floor and Siouxsie‘s drummer (Budgie) in the attic – that must of been how I met him – although it’s too far back in the mists of time to remember! I more or less remember my first sight of him – a young kid with a shaved head – very rare then, with a bar code on the side of his head and wearing white overalls.
You had already been a professional illustrator for some years by the time ‘Relax’ was released, what kind of work did you do before that?
I have been illustrating professionally since 1975, started on magazines, then books and had become interested in getting published more erotic images a few years before. I was working for Playboy and Men Only and trying very hard to get book publishers interested. Richard Adams wanted to work with me on an erotic tale of his but he couldn’t get a publisher interested – even him! I have always loved to draw people, especially in interesting costumes – hence everything from princesses to fetish.
Who were your peers and influences?
My influences come from absolutely everywhere and everything – trite, I know – I love everything from Yoshitoshi to Tom of Finland to Arthur Rackham.
The image used for ‘Relax’ was first featured in a June 1983 issue of Men Only magazine to illustrate an article on breasts, was this an existing image or was it commissioned for the article?
It was commissioned for that article.
What was your thinking behind this composition as there are no explicit visual references to breasts in it? Did they give you free rein to interpret the piece?
I had free rein – it was great, I had my model Caroline and we just used to get together and play around until something worked – I had another friend staying at the time, Brian, and after a lot of fun we ended up with some photographs we could use. (*note: the negatives from this session were published in Q magazine’s 100 Best Record Sleeves along with an interview with Yvonne).
I love the way it’s erotic rather than explicit, I was 13 at the time and realised that it was a sexual image because of the clothing or lack of, but it’s not threatening or exploitative to the woman. She’s enjoying herself and, if anything, the man is subservient to her as he forms an object for her to recline on. In fact she could be ‘relaxing’ in some ways, was this intentional in using the picture for the Frankie single or did Holly just like the image?
My women are always in charge – I don’t think I’ve ever produced an image where they aren’t. When Holly needed an image in a hurry I showed him a few of the Men Only pieces which I had handy and he chose that one because it was more fun I suppose. I don’t think either of us saw it as relaxing.
Can you remember how much you would have been paid for a piece like this for a magazine back then?
God knows – £800 rings a bell but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Where would Holly have seen this first? in your studio or portfolio (I’m presuming he wasn’t going out and buying Men Only?)
He came round to the house to discuss it, we had a look through the plan-chest. We were renting in Kingston (Upon-Thames, London) at the time – and no, I don’t think he would ever have found it otherwise.
I’ve seen that you sometimes sell prints of it under the name ‘Relax’, did the piece ever have a different title, being that it was done before the song was released?
No one remembers it as anything but ‘Relax’ – except you and I. But so many people have a place in their heart for that particular single.
How big is the original roughly in size and what medium was it done in?
It’s quite small – it’s done ‘same-size’ for the magazine. It’s done in coloured pencil.
Was this just a one-off or were there more illustrations like this for Men’s magazines? I’d be keen to know if there were more in this style as I love the image.
I have a few unscanned somewhere but this was before computers and my records are sketchy at best unfortunately. It was only a period of 2 or 3 years so there’s not that many – about 20 I guess.
These are fascinating to see, almost like an extension of the ‘Relax’ piece in some ways.
You also took the photograph on the back of the sleeve showing someone having their nipple ring pulled. Was this Paul Rutherford?
Yes it was Paul – I was into black and white photography in a big way then and already had those photos too.
Are there any more shots from this session?
I have one here that I can send you.
Did you receive any additional money from ZTT for the use of the drawing on the cover of ‘Relax’?
I think they gave me £200.
Did it feel exciting to be the illustrator of possibly the most iconic sleeve of the year when the whole banned single thing was going on?
Frankly – I was flattered that Holly liked it enough to use it but it was one of many jobs that year.
There were a couple of other record sleeves around afterwards that definitely ‘took inspiration’ from your work. Were you flattered or annoyed by the bootlegging of the image? I saw posters and T-shirts of it that weren’t official at the time.
Annoyed – it happens a lot and it really pisses me off. Worst were the dreadful pieces of artwork ‘aping’ my style. Really.
(*Google an early Stock, Aitken & Waterman release from 1984 by Agents Aren’t Aeroplanes, ‘The Upstroke’ and guess where they got the inspiration for their sleeve from)
Did it generate a lot of interest in you and get you work?
Unfortunately no – there’s something about my industry that they would rather pay for bad, cheap knock-offs than hire the original – doesn’t matter whether I’m doing a children’s book or design work – it makes me sick. I’d love to know why. That area of my work died out totally pretty soon after when the ‘girlie’ mags slowly faded away due to the Thatcher effect.
This work seems to be the polar opposite of what you are now best known for in children’s books although I see there’s personal work on your site that isn’t a million miles away from the ‘Relax’ cover. Were you specialising in this kind of thing at the time or was this one of many jobs in all different areas?
I have always worked in as many areas as possible – I have a living to earn. I love doing erotic work and miss it a lot but I have to follow the market. I don’t see the difference in them – they’re all people wearing interesting clothes.
I’m interested in the erotic angle in your artwork, is it / was it a big part of you and has it taken a back seat over the children’s book work? I see the connection with artists like Tom of Finland and Allen Jones perhaps, was your intention to move in this direction?
I still paint and take the occasional photograph. Round about 10 years ago when the illustration profession took another mortal blow and there was no work to be had I started to paint big-time, got a lot of attention, commissions, had some shows – thought this was the future but slowly the publishing side began to pick up and I had to choose. There are only so many hours in the day. Whether I chose right or not – who knows?
After ‘Relax’, did Holly try to get more of your work used in connection with the band? It would have been a nice thread to keep going (even though the next single was about war), maybe for the ‘…Pleasuredome’ album though? Did you do any more photography for the band for instance?
No, he didn’t. Who knows why? Maybe it was out of his hands?
Did you do any more work within the music industry or was this a one-off?
I had done more work previously – everyone and his Aunt Mabel was in the music business in Liverpool and I’d photographed (with my late husband David) lots of rising stars and helped design their albums. Pink Military, Hambi and the Dance, The Mogodons etc.
Have you ever managed to get a book of your work published? An overview of your career rather than you illustrating someone else’s words?
No – it was supposed to happen a few years back but the economy probably put paid to that.
Yvonne’s website is yvonnegilbert.com and she sells prints of the ‘Relax’ illustration among many others.
All photos and art © Yvonne Gilbert. All sleeve and disc art scanned from my personal collection, © ZTT. All text © ArtOfZTT 2013.