Modern menu design can seem bland compared to the whimsical illustrations that we admire on vintage menus. But some proprietors are doing interesting things with their menus and we are big fans of the work of John Broadley, whose quirky illustrations are featured on the menus of Quo Vadis in London.
We spoke to the 43-year-old illustrator who lives in London and asked him about his menu illustrations.
You started doing the Quo Vadis work back in January 2012. Had you ever done anything related to food before that?
I stopped working as an illustrator in the mid 1990s, got an unrelated regular job, and began making hand-made books of drawings instead. Apart from the odd job now and again I only started illustrating again last year. I have since worked on some other food-related projects with Julian Roberts of Irving & Co.- a ceramic stilton jar and also some wine labels. I have also illustrated two food-themed books due for publication in October 2013; "A Curious History of Food and Drink" by Ian Crofton (Quercus) and "Smart Tart" by Tamasin Day-Lewis (Unbound).
How did the commission come about?
After years of making small runs of hand-made books, they all got collected and published by Jonathan Cape. Julian had seen a copy and contacted me to see if I would be interested in doing some illustrations for the re-launched Quo Vadis with Jeremy Lee at the helm.
How do you work with Julian Roberts and Quo Vadis? Do you sit down with Jeremy Lee at QV and discuss ideas? We ask because your work often chimes with his 'whimsical' nature and flights of fancy?
I occasionally go in for a meeting with the QV team (Eddie and Sam Hart, Jon Spiteri, Jeremy and Julian) which always ends up being such a maelstrom of ideas that I usually end up leaving with my head in a whirl and wait for an email consisting of a concise breakdown of what was said, as interpreted by Julian.
They all have obviously got lots of experience in their respected fields and also have really strong ideas about the identity of the restaurant. The layout of the menu was already in place before I came along. A limited amount of dishes on offer, which rotate according to what's in season, as designed by Jeremy, meant that the menu itself is already very clear and simple. I was given a set area in the centre to fill with something relating to the current season. On top of this, we have also done a paper tablecloth, embossed covers for the wine and cocktail lists, a bag for the bakery, newsletters etc.
Trial and error has helped work out what goes down better, the first couple of drawings were very straight-forward - a drawing of a cow, one of an old oven, but then things started getting more interesting when I did a drawing of the St Valentine's Day massacre for Valentine's Day and a vampire to illustrate WILD GARLIC.
There are about six main menu illustrations each quarter and Jeremy will suggest subjects to draw. He has a delightful turn of phrase, peppering his sentences with dozens of references which you often have to spend a while on Google playing catch up. The emails I have off him are just as much about film and theatre as they are about food. For example, this year there was a trilogy of murder illustrations - the LAMB as murder weapon a la Cluedo; the mad scientist lowering his victim into a vat of boiling LARD in the cellar, and Miss Marple investigating a body in the RHUBARB patch of a stately home.
Did you look at any menus or other works for references?
I've seen all of the Edward Bawden Fortnum & Mason illustrations, but have known those for years. I try not to look at them as they are the complete last word in that sort of thing and I don't want to end up copying them. I used to look at old illustrators' work but am now more influenced by popular prints from the 18th and 19th century.
Were there any particular challenges of difficulties?
The team has been absolutely brilliantly enthusiastic, and if anything, has encouraged me to do stuff which is as off the wall as possible, so the whole thing has felt like more of an extension of my personal book work than a commercial commission. The biggest struggle for me is trying to balance working as an illustrator with a full-time job on a nightshift at a press-cuttings agency, which I have been doing for about 15 years now.
Who are your influences in terms of artists?
When I was about 18 on Foundation course in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, there was a touring Edward Bawden exhibition which was the first time I can remember seeing how it could be possible to translate actually being good at drawing into something which is more stylistic. Lots of the other illustrators from that time, like Eric Fraser, John Nash, Edward Ardizonne, Eric Fraser are also great. Seeing Edward Gorey made me think about covering the whole of the drawing area with marks; David Hockney for making you consider using as many different types of mark as possible. Saul Steinberg for taking ordinary objects and drawing them in the most extraordinary ways. And then dozens of unknown artists who produced all the cheaply produced chap-books and single sheet prints which used to be sold on the streets in the 18th and 19th century. Lately I've started really enjoying 'gag' cartoons from the 40s and 50s, things from the New Yorker etc; especially Richard Taylor, and there is also an Irish cartoonist called Rowel Friers, who specialised in pirates, whose drawings are wonderful.
How often and where do you eat out?
Apart from a few visits to Quo Vadis, I've not had much experience of going to good restaurants. The local Indian is more where I go when I go out to eat - if I can get out I usually head for the pub.
And finally - What do you think of modern menu design?
I know hardly anything about modern design. Perhaps that's a good thing as it means I'm not restricting myself to what is expected. I did used to look at design magazines when I first left college but after the initial stint at illustrating I really felt like I wasn't in harmony with trends and so just switched off from it.
We like to think that in years to come people will be collecting Quo Vadis menus.
To see more of John Broadley's work please check out his website: John Broadley's Books