It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that no contemporary book has a fan base quite as big as the Harry Potter series. If I were to guess, I’d say that everyone who reads this review has already read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone except for one person who has made a conscious decision not to and one very confused American who will realise in a minute that actually, he has. However! Have you read the particular edition that is illustrated by the marvellous British illustrator Jim Kay? If you haven’t, here’s why you should.
This is the first book in the Harry Potter series, in which Harry Potter turns eleven years old and discovers that he is a wizard. There are many editions of this popular book in existence, some of which are very beautiful, but what makes this version special is that it relies just as much on illustrations as it does on words to tell the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone contains, firstly, the kind of pictures you expect when you hear the word ‘illustration’: small watercolours next to the text or in the background and decorations around chapter titles.
But now and then you turn a page to discover a full-page painting that feels like you could reach into the book to touch whatever magical scene is depicted.
Kay’s style is vibrant, full of warm colours and has a strong sense of atmosphere. From one illustration to the next, the focus can be different, but the overall style remains coherent. Take, for instance, this insanely detailed picture of Diagon Alley, that actually runs over four pages in total:
And compare that with this relatively plain portrait of Draco Malfoy:
The two pictures seem nothing alike, except that the street that we see seems the only possible place that this boy, with his piercing gaze and long robes, can exist. Kay has succeeded in creating a visual world that seems real and complete in itself, just like Rowling did with words.
As you probably know, the Harry Potter world is quite harsh. You forget it sometimes, especially in the first few books in the series, but the wizards and witches can be distant and manipulative and callous even when Voldemort is nowhere around. Kay has grasped this and plays with it in glorious contrasts:
Hagrid’s little shack looks as comfortable as you can imagine, a place to feel safe and loved. The Forbidden Forest is eerie, but beautiful. Hogwarts is both wonderful and imposing. Remember, not only is this castle centuries old and made to keep bad people out, but this is also the first time Harry, Ron and Hermione see it, as it is their first year in school. I’d be very overwhelmed if I saw Hogwarts for the first time, from the viewpoint of a tiny boat in an enormous lake no less.
When I read a book, I have a very vivid image in my head of what people and places look like. This is why, for me, books and film adaption always exist more or less next to each other. The atmosphere of what Kay has created is remarkable close to what I imagined when reading the story for the first time, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. I can imagine that the pictures don’t speak to you if your own mental picture is completely different. Even if that is the case, the illustrations are drawn so skillfully and with so much expression, each of them can exist and be appreciated on its own.
Jim Kay is an illustrator and concept artist who lives in Northamptonshire with his partner, who is a designer and milliner. Kay has worked in the Libraries & Archives of Tate Britain and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. His love for museums, libraries and gardens is evident in his drawings: detailed backgrounds and textures are often inspired by real places. The door in this picture of Hermione conjuring a light, for example, is based on the door of All Saints church in Thornham.
Kay has done his research by visiting stately homes, churches and mansions which gives his illustrations a distinctly British character, in accordance with the story. One of the things I love the most is how overgrown Hogwarts is with ivy and other plants. In this picture, part of the castle is even built on trees:
It is nearly the last picture in the book, at the point in the story when the children are going home for the summer. In the course of the book, Hogwarts has become Harry’s home and he has made the wizarding world his own. Hogwarts in this picture is inviting, the place where he is confident he will be returning to in the autumn.
I think the fandom’s ubiquity has made the love for Harry Potter a thing that is often hijacked by commercial exploitation. These illustrations remind me of why I loved these books in the first place: the magical world, the rampant imagination that sets the story alight and the host of misfit characters. There are many more pictures to marvel at, from a Norwegian Ridgeback that is taken straight from Dragon Species of Great Britain and Ireland, to a nightly aerial view of Hogwarts, to a regal portrait of Professor McGonagall. Take your time to savour them and you might be inspired to take up a brush or pencil yourself. As Kay writes on his website:
“For all those young readers who like to draw, keep scribbling! Remember, it’s your ideas that are important, the technique will come along with practice. So don’t be down-hearted if things don’t always come out the way you’d intended. I’ve never produced an illustration that I think is ‘finished’ or that I’m particularly happy with, but I keep trying. Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make us interesting and different, in my opinion.”
Baz Luhrmann Award for a dazzling visual take on a classic
J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London 2015, story originally 1997)