The British illustrator Chris Wormell, 65, knew early on that the kind of art he wanted to make would be “a bit backward-looking.” As a boy in London, some of his favorite pictures were wood-engravings by Thomas Bewick, the 18th-century British illustrator known for his vignettes of the natural world. When Mr. Wormell decided to become a book illustrator himself, he chose engraving as his medium.
Mr. Wormell has illustrated several award-winning children’s books, but he gained a new kind of international recognition thanks to his cover design for Helen Macdonald’s 2014 memoir “H Is for Hawk,” in which she writes about training a goshawk as a way of coping with grief after her father’s death. The book became a surprise hit, selling over a million copies around the world. Some of the credit must go to Mr. Wormell’s old-fashioned yet striking image of a beshadowed goshawk perched on a branch, looking directly at the reader with a challenging stare. The image was partly inspired by Ms. Macdonald’s description of her bird as something “beautiful like a granite cliff or a thunder-cloud…So wild and spooky and reptilian.”
This year, author and illustrator reunited for a kind of sequel, a book of Ms. Macdonald’s essays about the natural world called “Vesper Flights,” published in the U.S. last summer by Grove Atlantic. The title essay, which refers to the twilight flights of swifts, inspired Mr. Wormell’s cover image: a common swift in full flight against the backdrop of a liquid blue sky. In the bottom right corner, a radio telescope attests to man’s pervasive imprint on nature.
“The ways that Chris knows animals in their bones and can produce these stylized conjurations just seemed to chime so much with the kind of work that I was trying to do in the book,” Ms. Macdonald says. “The book is about how we load animals with our own meanings of what we see in them, so having something that wasn’t a photograph or a photo-realistic picture was very important.”
Mr. Wormell’s hawk and swift are quite different from the style of his early wood-engravings—small, detailed black-and-white images similar to the ones Bewick used in his “History of British Birds.” His approach changed in 1990, when he created the illustrations for his first children’s book, “An Alphabet of Animals.” Instead of engraving in wood, Mr. Wormell depicted his exotic animals by using linoleum blocks, inked up with different colors and printed one on top of another.