Categories: Interviews

Published on 30/07/2018

Today I have a special treat for you - an interview with historical illustrator Matthew Ryan. I have personally known Matthew for almost 20 years, where we met studying Illustration at Hereford College of the Arts. Matthew was always an incredibly talented artist and illustrator with a passion for history, and whereas with my own career I moved into web design and development, Matthew stayed devoted to his art. He has recently commissioned us to design his new website in order to better showcase his work, an in-progress project that fits perfectly with our heritage sector specialism. It takes a great deal to succeed as an illustrator, an incredible investment of time and energy and I am both very proud and humbled to work alongside Matthew once again.

What got you into historical illustration?

As far back as I can remember I have always loved drawing and art. As a child it is something I always did, I could not answer why it started or why also I put so much time into it at an early age, other than to say it's because I loved it so much and doing it just came naturally. If I go a day without producing something I get quite moody and frustrated, the urge to keep creating and developing my own skills is still just as strong now and the pursuit of improvement is definitely one of the driving factors. Something I enjoy about picture making is that you become the creator of your own world and with historical illustration you have the added pleasure of also bringing the past to life.

My interest in military art and history was always there even at an early age. Most of my childhood drawings were of knights, Vikings and soldiers, with the odd dragon thrown into the mix. My interests in life were the things that I used as prime sources of drawing material for my young mind. At an early age influences were very much from television programs and films, mostly all the old classics. One that influenced me greatly was John Boorman's Excalibur, I loved the rich visuals and how he had managed to visually link the story of Arthur, the sword and the dragon to that of nature and paganism. The film reflected this throughout with its vivid depictions of the forest and the land and although being of course a fantasy film I saw that there was a way of also telling truths through historic fiction.

As a boy I lived next to a woodland that was once part of the ancient Feckenham Forest in the Midlands of England, often I would play in it making bows and arrows and aiming at targets hung among the trees so that environment is something I have always loved and enjoy depicting in my own work. Cornwall was our yearly family holiday destination and the alleged grave of King Arthur was a place we often visited at Glastonbury Abbey when staying in Cornwall. On one occasion we visited a restaurant there that had some of the actual armour from the film Excalibur on display, my father could not afford for us all to eat there so I had to make do with looking at the pieces they had on display in the window, this I thought at the time was really cool!

Another love of my adult life has been traditional archery and this has fed very much into my pursuit of studying medieval history. The story of the bow throughout the medieval period is very much the story of what's now the British isles and although many cultures used similar style of bows to the so called longbow (Warbow) it was the armies of the English with archers from England and Wales during the Hundred Years War that really made this weapon their own. The quest to learn about this weapon and the men that used it has been a passion for a long time now and making medieval arrows and shooting what's now called the War Bow really helps to give me a hands on feeling of being that little bit closer to those archers of old, more than what purely textual study alone allows. It also opened doors for me to the importance of experimental archaeology and how when you are in the business of reconstructing the medieval past it often helps to have a hands on approach as much as an academic one in many cases.

What are some of your proudest moments of your career?

Since working as an historical illustrator I have been fortunate to work with many great companies and people. It is hard to say which ones stand out but I will mention a few and add the various reasons that make them special to me. One of my first commissions was working on a series of illustrations about the 1719 Jacobite rebellion for use on the Channel Four series Walking Through History with Tony Robinson. As one of my first commissions this will always be a little special to me but also growing up as quite a fan of Tony it was a real pleasure to see the final film with his narration and the added sound effects joined to my visuals.

Something else early in my career that I am quite proud of was creating a large panoramic reconstruction painting of the 1460 Battle of Northampton alongside the history and on site research of the Historian Mike Ingram. The painting was produced in conjunction with The Northamptonshire Battlefields Society at a time when the battle site was at risk of being lost to building development. There was a campaign to save the site and the painting helped a lot with this cause, by bringing the often forgot event in our history to life and also helping both locals and people further away to visualise the reality of the battle and help understand its importance to our history and why it needed to be preserved for future generations. The painting now hangs in the Abbey on the site of the battle and I am pleased to say the site now has a protection order on it.

I produced work for the 600 Year Anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt for Historic Royal Palaces. The work was printed to around five metres high and displayed in the White Tower at The Tower of London. Being such a keen archer and given the history that the place has seen made that job a real privilege to work on and something that I was proud to see. After King Richard lll's remains were discovered under the car park in Leicester the Mayor of Leicester passed on my details to the design company in charge of producing the visuals and graphics for the Visitor Centre they were building on site around where his remains were found. I was lucky enough to win the commission to illustrate the story of Richard's life during the years 1483 to his death in 1485. I produced all the artwork in a mid to late 15c style, contemporary with the period. These illustrations were printed so that the figures in them were around life size and the whole series made up the lower floor of the exhibition space. To have my work so close to the grave site of the last Plantagenet King of England, killed in battle is very special and all the more special to know that myself and my work has now become part of that story.

I could list many more projects that due to the heritage links or prestige of the clients were proud moments for me to work on but one of the things that makes me most proud are the individual non commercial followers and collectors of my work that buy original art or signed prints to hang in their own homes. It really is a privilege to work as a commercial illustrator specialising in history and heritage but then to also have a strong fine art fan base spread around almost every continent on earth means a lot to me too. Maybe the proudest thing is to be in a position to be telling some of the stories from our past through my art!

What is your favourite historical place and why?

For this it has to be Warwick Castle.

Although many will criticise it for being to commercial I have grown up around the place as we have always lived close. I have fond memories of it as a child and now have the pleasure of me and my wife taking our own three children there. We have a yearly pass so go quite often.

What book are you currently reading?

Well I currently am reading six books that I am working on cover art for, three are historical fiction and two are non-fiction I can not list these though due to publishing confidentiality and things but it is hard to get so much time to read what I want to read on top of what I have to read for projects. I am also reading various non-fiction history books for particular fine art pieces I am currently producing. The subjects for these are William Marshal, Andrew de Moray and The Scottish Wars of Independence and Hannibal and Scipio at the Battle of Zama in the Second Punic War. This can be quite intense and often as well as published works on the subjects I often find and go to the original chronicles to gain first hand sources of the events. For some bedtime reading I have also recently read The Templar's by Dan Jones. I like how he writes non-fiction but in quite a narrative style and although this often does not take into account conflicting chronicler accounts it does make for smooth flowing reading brings the events to life. Another series of non-fiction that I am often reading are The Savernake murder mysteries novels by Susanna M. Newstead. I have illustrated all of her covers and produced all her jacket design and branding for the books. We are currently working on book six and there are many more to come.

Are you currently working on anything exciting at the moment?

I am as I mentioned working on several large oil painting commissions as well as various private commission pencil work. Recently I completed twenty seven illustrations for a book on Charlemagne that will soon be published and also a major project designing artwork and creating illustrations that will be used on certain products packaging but I am at present not able to disclose who that is. Also on the easel near completion is a illustration showing the death of Wat Tyler at the 1381 Peasants Revolt for the Spanish based history magazine Desperta Ferro. The future also has quite a few other interesting projects and commissions lined up.

How do you do you think your new website is going to help with your business?

My current website does not show all the strong list of clients that I have worked with or the commercial side of my work. My new one will help very much with prospective and also help show the diverse amount of applications my work is used in. Also I believe my new site will be a lot easier to navigate and will also separate my illustration and project work away from the fine art side of my business where signed prints can be purchased. One of the things I am most looking forward to on my new website is that it will have an attached blog. I currently have quite a strong social media following across various platforms however the blog will allow me to talk to followers of my work in a much more comprehensive way and I also think it will provide commercial clients with a good insight into the way I work. Having access to my site myself will also help a lot as it means it will constantly be updated with new things and will grow as my portfolio grows.

Matthew's new site is not live yet, however please do visit his existing website to find out more about him and his work. As soon as the new site is live, I’ll update this text here, but for now you can see a sneak preview above.

Harry O'Connor

Director of Heritage Creative, Harry has been in the web design industry for nearly 20 years.