Whitby, North Yorkshire

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  • Karen Ruffles

The Borrower, graveyard guardian


The latest illustration for Tales in Sombre Tones with author Sean Walter has an interesting origin story. I used to live in London and on the other side of my garden wall lay St Patrick's cemetery, the oldest working catholic cemetery in the city. I used to visit occasionally and each time, felt a distinct presence that would intensify the longer I stayed.


The Borrower, charcoal pencil and carbon on watercolour paper.

Graveyard guardians are well known in British folklore - often a black dog or said to be the first person buried there. The spirit of this place felt different, wilder, so I looked for a representation that suited it. After visits, when I would often leave a suitable offering - normally food or drink but sometimes a favourite found object, I grew accustomed to finding a return gift of bones or feathers in my garden. The way that the presence grew stronger the longer I stayed and lifted the moment I left it's territory gave a distinct impression that if I outstayed my welcome, something would happen. Perhaps, like the small offerings, I might be 'borrowed', become part of what lived there and so The Borrower was born. A self made creature, formed of the bones and other remains scattered around the graveyard.


Ivy on gravestone, St Patrick's cemetery

One of my favourite spots in the cemetery was a fox den located somewhere in the middle of an overgrown ivy patch. Just outside of their little kingdom was this marker, stag headed with dead ivy that inspired his 'horns'. I chose a fox skull for his head in their honour and to give an otherworldly combination of predator and prey species to round off the character. I have sketches of the complete being but in the interests of having a piece done in time for the publication of our book, wanted a simpler composition that expressed how it felt to share that space with something without having to draw the entire scene.


Cherry tree with holly growing from the centre.

St Patrick's is a sizeable cemetery with numerous trees and large statues so I decided to draw the creature as glimpsed from behind something else. A cobweb with water droplets gave a good sharp foreground while leaving plenty of space for the figure moving into view and complimented the lighting I wanted to use, having the source behind The Borrower so he was only partially visible and blended into the darkness. He's slightly out of focus, capturing the moment just before we realise he is there and hope he doesn't look to see us...or we might be borrowed....

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