The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Nigel Peake


I first saw the work of Nigel Peake in his book In The Wilds, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011. Collecting Nigel’s beautiful and meditative drawings and watercolours of rural landscapes and buildings, the book reminded me of both of the work of Paul Klee (Highways and Byways, for example) and Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald’s discursive record of ambling through East Anglia.

I subsequently discovered, of course, that Nigel had already produced a significant body of work prior to In the Wilds, including illustrations for Ninja Tune, Hermes, the Royal Horticultural Society, Habitat, The Believer and Dwell magazine, as well as several books.

And in this shiny digital age, there is undoubtedly something wonderful in Nigel’s meticulous hand-drawn maps and tumbledown sheds. We corresponded by email.

Do you remember when you first become interested in art and illustration?

I feel like I have always drawn. Some of my earliest memories are associated with painting and the things that surround it, the plastic containers that held the primary colours and the smell from the cheap paint. When I was growing up I did not really think in terms of design or illustration I just had a wish to draw all the time. And that is still true now, I type this surrounded my paints, pens and paper… so maybe not much has changed. Drawing for me, is essentially a way of thinking through a thought or an idea, to document and try to understand what is around me.

What was your first job as illustrator?

When I was still studying and finishing my architecutural thesis I designed a snowboard graphic for a company in California. After that I worked on a project with Ninja Tune

And how did the project for Ninja Tune come about?

In truth I am not too sure, I remember leaving a zine for DJ Food when he was djing at Edinburgh, I was not even thinking of it in terms of work , I just wanted to share my work with those that I admired. One way or another I ended up drawing the artwork for the Coldcut ‘Sound Mirror’ LP and singles. They were really nice people to work with and I have made a few other things for them since.

You’re also an architect as well as an artist. How does that inform your work?

I am not a ‘complete’ architect – in that I have yet to finish it professionally. I did study it for 6 years. Studying architecture did not directly affect how I draw, but it did introduce me to a lot of different ways of thinking. I read a lot of interesting books and listened to some wonderful conversations. It was hard work, and the studio ethic of working all day is still engrained in me. I am interested in architecture and how it holds all these moments that occur every day. I recently made a book about the bridges of London, these fantastical structures that essentially have become invisible to those who live there. It is amazing to be in a city and look around, and you have all these forms and shapes that where designed and made by us. It is the combination of our efforts.

Why did you decide to move away from the city?

It was not intentional, it just happened. I was tutoring and drawing projects and then I seem to end up in the country, I probably got tired of being in a city. I had been living in Edinburgh for 8 years. At the moment I travel a lot with my work so it is nice to live somewhere that is quiet and simple, and a place that I want to return to.

What is it about the details of vernacular architecture that particularly interest you?

I am not sure, it is probably because it is what I have grown up around. I enjoy how things are put together, and vernacular architecture is very honest in that respect – you can see what holds what up.

Also a lot of things fall apart because of the wind and the rain and old age, and I find this equally beautiful because when this happens you see all the parts that where previously hidden to the world.

It is an architecture determined by what is close to hand and so the materials and colours used are more interesting. Blue twine holds it together and plastic bags and old gates bridge the gaps.

Is there a tension between your love of the countryside and your fascination with built structures?

Not particulary, probably because I look at them with the same interest, when I look at a leaf I am still amazed by the detail and the wonder of it and then when I look at a skyscraper I can not believe that we can make such incredible structures. The only tension is that if I spend too long in a city I want to go to the places where there are no buildings, I particularly miss the sea if I have not seen it for a while.

Do you take a lot of photographs or do you rely more on sketchbooks?

I do take photographs, but not to draw from, but just to remember things that I see along the way. I also like how a camera allows you to frame what is around you – by taking a photo of something you edit everything else around you and that one moment is held. I keep sketchbooks and draw in them every day not because I think it is fashionable or because I think I should but because I will forget things – so I use them to hold those things that might turn into something someday. I think this idea of keeping a book comes from school because for years we sat at tables with books marked maths, geography, chemistry… so it seems normal to keep writing and drawing things into a book.

Apart from nature and buildings, where do you look for inspiration?

Nearly everything I see has an affect upon me, one of my favourite things is to sit and just look, not as a form of procrastination but as a way of observing what is around me. There is so much to see and hear in everything.

Beyond what I see, I know that music is probably my biggest influence. In the same way that I have early memories of drawing – these are entangled with memories of music. My mother played Gracelands on repeat in the house or the car. And my father always had Pet Sounds. On a Friday night we would have record night and each of us would get to choose one to play. I always listen to music when I am drawing or making things. It is such a beautiful thing to close your door for a while, sit at your table and put on a record and simply draw.

You publish some of your work with Analogue Books in Edinburgh. How did that come about?

I studied architecture in Edinburgh and Analogue opened a few years after I had arrived. I remember going in and liking the books they had and more importantly the people who owned it seemed kind. And so I started to bring some work in and got to know Russell and Julie through that. Since then we have published zines and books and exhibitions and probably eaten a lot of McVities biscuits. They are some of the best people I have met through my work. Hopefully in the next few months we are going to make some new things.

Your work does seem particularly well suited to the books. Are you interested in the juxtaposition of word and pictures?

Books are wonderful objects. There were a lot of books around me when I was growing up.

The possibilities are endless, in terms of what words and pictures can do. Making a book is as close as I will get to making an album. With this form, you can tell a story or not, but with each page you can explore an idea, knowing that it will be seen after what went before, so for me there is a beautiful rhythm to a book. The flicking of a page has great joy in it. For now I like making work as a series ( maps, sheds, bridges, birds, billboards, cameras…) and so books are perfect for this exploration.


Who are a few of your favourite writers?

To name a few who I can always return to, in no order.

John Steinbeck, Earnest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Seasmus Heaney, George Simenon, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Francis Ponge, Jorge luis Borges, Gaston Bacherlard, Walter Benjamin, Arthur Conan Doyle and John Cheever.

What are you reading currently?

At the moment I am living in Austria and have read all the books I packed so for now I am reading the newspaper.

Thanks Nigel!

Full Disclosure: In the Wilds by Nigel Peake is published by Princeton Architectural Press, and distributed in Canada by my employer Raincoast Books.

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  3. Some months ago I bought Into the wild by Nigel Peake. A fascinating work, it are artists like Peake that keeps the world of drawing alive. Alongside Jochen Gerner and Henning Wagenbreth he is part of a favorite section in my library.

  4. Thanks so much for your comment, Mr. Swarte. I agree. Into the Wild is a fascinating and beautiful book.

    Nigel has a another book called In the City, in which he turns his attention from the rural environment to the urban one. It was published at the end of last year and is wonderful too.

    I am also a great admirer of your work. Your draftsmanship is extraordinary — talk about keeping drawing alive! I am more than a little humbled that you would stop by my blog and leave a comment!. If you would ever like to do a short Q & A interview, please get in touch. Thanks again ~ Dan.

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