31 Letters in 31 Days: Letter 25 – Dear John Bauer
Dear John Bauer,
If you were alive today, I would ask to be your wife, your housemaid, the cleaner of your paintbrushes, anything, just to be close to you and watch you work your natural magic on canvases and paper. I had the first sight of your work when I was seven. The children I went to school with were mostly blonde and foreign. They had books illustrated by you on their bookshelves. Most of their reading material was written and illustrated by Swedes; Astrid Lindgren, Elsa Beskow, Selma Legerlof, to name but a few. This wasn’t important to me then. What was important was spending time with these books. They were beautiful and big and expensive. I would read them over and over, treating them, every time I took them off the shelf, like new born babies. They were too expensive for my family to be able to afford, but over the years, a few slipped into our procession; given as gifts mostly or a really special treat at Christmas or Birthdays. Your illustrations of golden haired fairy princesses and trolls, moose and gnomes, princes and elemental beings, moss covered boulders, forests and bears had me entranced from the word go. I forgot about you for a while, well, that’s a lie. I grew up and started reading about ghosts and hobbits and perhaps, most prominently, vampires. But, I would still sneak a look when I didn’t think anyone was watching, especially when I was ill and had Mum and Dad’s bed all to myself for the day.
I never would have guessed your work would go on to be the album art and main band logo for one of my favourite musicians. We didn’t have the internet at home when I found you again, and the only thing our computer could do was stall in the middle of an Amstrad game and piss everyone off. I came across you again on the front of an early Mortiis album, The Stargate, which I had to order and pick up from a shop in Durham, ages away from where we were living. Internet shopping was unheard of. Mortiis’s logo was the image of an elf knight fighting a serpent, and it had been the illustration on the front of a publication of ‘Bland tomtar och troll’ (among gnomes and trolls) in 1915. A flame inside me re-kindled. I became utterly obsessed. I have even had the ‘Bland tomtar och troll’ image tattooed on my back. I have learnt more about you and your inspirations over the years, and can give people lectures about you when they ask who my favourite artist of all time is.
I went to Sweden last year. One of the main reasons was you. I went to the John Bauer museum in Jönköping, where you are from. The rain was unforgiving, and it was long train ride from where I was staying. But I would have travelled for days if I had to. I was disappointed to find that the tour around the small museum, (which I was willing to part with thirty pounds for) that had been advertised on the internet didn’t actually exist, so I made my own way around the small space, housing your work, photographs, letters and materials. The majority of the text explaining the items was in Swedish, but this didn’t deter me. My face started to hurt almost as soon as I had arrived, for my smile was wider than it’s ever been. I wandered around, slowly, slowly taking in everything. Photographs of your wife, the paintbrushes you used, the letters you sent, the sketches of the famous images that have a permanent home in my brain. I think some of the Swedes thought something was wrong with me, as my smile remained untouched the entire time. I collected every postcard that was available, so I could take a little part of you home with me. I can’t put into words exactly how your work makes me feel, but the magic and escapism and fantasy and sheer joy that I get from looking at it, and having it around me and, indeed, on me, is unlike anything else. John Bauer, it is devastating that you and your young family died in that horrific accident all those years ago, and if I could have one wish…
Sometimes, I want to be the only one in the world who knows about you. But that would be too cruel.