Artist Míla Fürstová illustrates new edition of Kytice

Photo: Jantar Publishing

To mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Karel Jaromír Erben, one of the greatest Czech poets of all time, the London-based publishing house Jantar has released a special illustrated version of Kytice or A Bouquet of Folk Legends, Erben’s famous collection of poems.

November marks 150 years since the death of Karel Jaromír Erben, one of the greatest Czech poets of all time, who is best known for his collection of ballads called  Kytice or A Bouquet of Folk Legends. Along with Mácha’s Máj and Nĕmcová’s Babička, it is one of the best-loved and most cherished works of Czech literature.

To mark the occasion, the London-based publishing house Jantar has released a special edition of Kytice, translated by Susan Reynolds and accompanied by stunning illustrations by the Czech-British artist Míla Furstová. The Czech-language version of the book has also been released by the Odeon publishing house.

By the bench there stood an infant,
Screaming, screaming, loud and wild;
`Can't you just be quiet an instant?
Hush, you nasty gypsy-child!

Now it's noon, or just about,
Daddy's coming home for dinner:
while I cook, the fire's gone out---
all your fault, you little sinner!

Hush! Your cart's here, your hussar---
look, your cockerel!---Go on, play!'
Crash, bang! Soldier, cock and cart
To the corner fly away.

Once again that fearful bellow---
`May a hornet come and sting you!
Hush, you naughty little fellow,
Or the Noonday Witch I'll bring you!

Come for him, you Noonday Witch, then!
Come and take this pest for me!'---
In the door into the kitchen,
Someone softly turns the key.

These are the opening lines of a poem called The Noonday Witch, one of the 13 ballads included in the famous cycle of poems by Karel Jaromír Erben. Based on folk tales and legends, Kytice was first published in 1853 and has since become one of the iconic works of Czech literature.

Míla Fürstová in her studio in Cheltenham,  2020,  photo: Quintin Lake

Jantar, an independent publisher of European literary fiction and poetry, first published a full English version of Kytice in 2013, in an excellent translation by Susan Reynolds. Now it has released a new version of Kytice, marking the upcoming tenth anniversary of the publishing house as well as the 150th anniversary of Erben’s death.

I discussed the genesis of the illustrated edition of Kytice with Jantar’s founder, Michael Tate:

“Susan and I have been working on a new version for at least four years, probably longer. It has some of the fragments of poems that Erben wrote, but didn’t complete. There is also quite a long afterword that Erben wrote for the last edition published in his lifetime, so I wanted to put that in there.

Michael Tate,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I also wanted a new introduction describing the poems’ effect on music. So I asked the musicologist and Czech revival expert Jeff Chew to write a new introduction.

“These poems are actually known globally through Dvořák’s music. His tone poems inspired by Erben are actually among the most performed pieces of music of all his composition.”

Since its first publishing in 2013, Kytice has been one of Jantar’s bestselling titles, hasn’t it?

“Indeed and quite frankly, it is a bit of a shock. Let’s face it. If someone came to you and said: I have got this translation of a 19th century collection of poems written by a famous folklorist from central Europe, it’s not a really obvious bestseller. But it’s easily the bestselling book out of our collection.”

What do you think it is that attracts present-day readers to Kytice?

“If you look at the texts that we publish, they are all modern literary fiction, often post-modern, some experimental. I am very proud of them all. But seeing the translation of Erben’s poems is a very unique thing. And I really don’t know why it has done so well.

“But if you look at the poems again, they do offer insights into people’s everyday thoughts and follow universal themes that are not particularly Czech or Central European. There is love, death, marriage, destruction, children, parenting, good and evil.

“If you take Vodník as an example he is easily the most evil character in world literature and right now possibly the most contemporary, after all he is a water born virus that kills people. You can’t get more contemporary than that!”

Míla Fürstová working on illustrations for Kytice,  2020,  photo: Quintin Lake

How did the cooperation with Míla Furstová come about?

“We met at a function organised by the Czech Embassy in London some time last year and we ended up talking about Erben’s  poems for two or three hours. I don’t really come across many people who know a lot about Erben.

“She told me she was an artist and I asked her if she would consider designing a cover for the new edition. That cover became her representation of Zlatý Kolovrat, the Golden Spinning Wheel. And that is actually the cover for the new edition.”

Under normal circumstances, the cooperation would have probably ended there, but then the lockdown in Britain came and Míla Furstová agreed to do more illustrations. I spoke to her on the phone to her home in Britain to discuss her beautiful depictions of the famous tales and how they originated:

Polednice,  KYTICE,  etching,  photo: Quintin Lake

“Well, the thing is that I don’t normally take very big commissions. I am trying to a do a lot of my own work and also the technique I work with, a 15th century technique called etching, seems to take longer than other artists to complete my work.

“So I immediately knew I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure I could commit to such work. But then the lockdown came and suddenly I had to be locked in our house with little children and with my husband.

“I knew I needed a place to escape to and Kytice is such a strong space, if you like, in one’s imagination, that it seemed the best thing I could do.”

“I was hesitating about the horror side of it. Although my work deals with mystery and layering and ambiguity, it kind of shies away from horror, so I didn’t know quite how I would deal with that.

“So it was an interesting challenge. And I think in my depiction of Kytice, I tried to set the mood rather than illustrating the horror.”

What is your own relationship to Kytice?

“I hope that through my artwork, people will find their way to Erben.”

“Actually I have a very close relationship to Kytice, because I remember reading it as a 10-year-old child at my grandmother’s village in southern Bohemia. As you know, Kytice is very lyrical and the environment itself is a protagonist in the book.

“And I felt that while reading Kytice, I was occupying the same environment. Those peaceful forests and lakes and everything that Erben describes, even the little cemeteries, all these things are part of where I was reading the book. So I felt completely drawn to it. I loved it!

Can you tell us more about the technique of etching? How does it work?

“It’s a 15th century technique and it is very painstaking, but the upside of it is that it can give you a really unpredictable result. To cut it short, I work with a metal plate that I have to heat up and cover with melting wax.

Vodník,  KYTICE,  etching,  photo: Quintin Lake

“When the wax cools down, I turn the plate around and smoke it with a candle. Then I take a needle and I draw through this waxy black surface to expose an area of the plate which gives me a silver line.

“So each plate that I did for Kytice started as a jet black, quite large plate with a silver line showing the narrative. And I would take maybe three weeks to draw that in great detail. When the drawing is finished I put it in a bath of acid and the acid attacks these silver lines of the exposed plate underneath and bites it away.

“Then I wash the wax off and I am left with a metal plate with etched lines of the drawing. At this stage I am able to put different coloured inks in different areas of the plate and change the mood of the plate.

“If you look at the poems, they follow universal themes that are not particularly Czech or Central European.”

“I think it really is similar to how Erben would have written the ballads. He probably had a few variations and then he would choose the right one and I do the same with the etchings.”

What aspect of Erben’s work did you want to highlight in your work?

“Generally the atmosphere around Erben’s ballad is very timeless. These people, mostly women, are being really tested by life and by the rules of the society.

“For example there is a woman who kills her new-born baby, which is of course utterly horrible, but at the same time, she is pushed into the horror by the society’s strict view of an unmarried mother having a child.

Svatební košile,  KYTICE,  etching,  photo: Quintin Lake

“So when doing an illustration to this particular ballad, I tried to depict not just the horror of what she had done but also the fact that she fell in love for someone who got her pregnant. So I always tried to depict the lasting humanity of it that is relevant today.”

What does it mean to you illustrating such an iconic work of literature?

“It is a real honour to be acting like a sort of bridge. I have provided this carefully rendered blanket of my illustrations that celebrate Erben’s work and opened it to the world. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we still do.

“And I hope I have put enough of my love and soul into the cover of the book and the illustrations so that people who see it on the shelf are likely to reach for it. I hope that through my artwork, they will find their way to Erben. So it’s a great honour, an immense honour.”