ALTHOUGH I was only seven years old at the time, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination. I was standing by the kitchen sink, already weeping at the - for me - more terrible news that day: C S Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had died. Having braved the mothballs of many an elderly relative's musty wardrobe in hope of finding the snowy realms of Narnia, I knew that the only way to get there was through the books. Now there would never be any more.

If Narnia was more real to me on November 22, 1963, than some distant place called the U-ess-ay, C S Lewis's illustrator, Pauline Baynes, was partly responsible. The chronicles of Narnia were vividly told, but it was her drawings that brought the magic to life. This November marks the centenary of Clive Staples Lewis's birth, an occasion that will be celebrated by various new editions of the Narnia chronicles, an exhibition at the London Toy and Model Museum about Narnia and Lewis's life, and a stage adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Almost half a century after she drew the original Narnia pictures, Pauline has worked on them again, tinting them with watercolour for a sumptuous full-colour commemorative edition. There cannot be many artists who have been asked to rework their own pictures after so long but Pauline's career in book illustration has been truly remarkable. Authors whose books have benefited from her talents include J R R Tolkien, Alison Uttley, Rumer Godden and Mary Norton of The Borrowers fame, to mention but a few. I was put off the books a long time ago when I discovered that they were deliberately designed as a Christian allegory. Aslan was Christ, the "lion of Judah". His killing by the witch and miraculous return to life parallel the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Even the Turkish delight was a stand-in for the apple in the Garden of Eden. I felt conned - and, although my admiration for the pictures remains undiminished, I felt a bit sheepish going to meet Pauline since I now regarded them as part of an elaborate trick.

"Then you can imagine how I felt when I realised," she laughed as I expressed my unease. She was so warm and welcoming, I had found myself blurting out the truth even before the coffee was on the table. "Didn't you realise either?" I asked incredulously. "Not till long afterwards. At the time, I just thought they were marvellous stories." She was in her mid-twenties when she started work on the Narnia books. She had already delighted J R R Tolkien with her illustrations for Farmer Giles of Ham, so when C S Lewis told her that he had asked an assistant in a bookshop to recommend an illustrator and they had given him Pauline's name, she was a bit disconcerted. He had obviously heard about her through his Hobbit-creating colleague, but for some reason preferred this story. Lewis did not take a great deal of interest in the illustrations.

"I think he saw them as just a necessary part of a children's book." Although he always praised her work to her face, Pauline later discovered that he had been openly critical about it to others. He told his biographer, George Sayer, that she could not draw lions. Considering how much her pictures (especially the lions) have contributed to Narnia's popularity, this was ironic as well as hypocritical. Single copies of first editions now fetch far more than she was paid to do the work. She receives mail from all round the world, from people who are largely unaware that she has ever done anything else. "I think it's the fate of the illustrator," she shrugs philosophically. "Look at Ernest Shepherd. He was so brilliant and did so much fine work, but people only associate him with Pooh and Piglet, and Toad of Toad Hall. It's the penalty of hitching your wagon to a star.'

Pauline Baynes and C S Lewis met only twice. The first time was in December 1949, after she had completed the illustrations for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He invited her to Oxford along with some eminent guests and laid on a lunch at his college. Tolkien had heard she was coming and sent her a note asking her to call and see him afterwards. When the day dawned foggy, her father declared it was too dangerous to make the journey from Farnham in Surrey. Her mother, knowing how disappointed Pauline would be, promptly ordered a taxi and dropped her daughter off at the college, arranging a time to collect her later. She remembers Lewis's brother doing his best to make her feel at ease in the intimidating company. There was a note from Tolkien waiting beside her plate saying that she would probably not have time to visit. She recalls watching C S Lewis pass round the food and, when nobody wanted any more sprouts, gleefully picking out the remaining walnuts. She was the first to leave because she had to meet her mother.

When the taxi arrived at Tolkien's house, she found the great man about to go out to play squash. "I am often asked about that lunch, but the reality is the day was completely overshadowed by worrying about my mother and the taxi, my awkwardness over whether or not to call on Tolkien - and my chief memory of Lewis was seeing him picking out those walnuts." Their other encounter was when they had tea at Waterloo station. "He spent the whole time looking at his watch." Her diary entry for the day reads: "Met C S Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes." Now she thinks she probably made him nervous. Apparently, he once told George Sayer that "Pauline is far too pretty." "One doesn't need to have liked him to admire him. He never became a friend the way Tolkien did. I just thought of it as work." After he died she gave his letters to his brother, Warnie, including one she now wishes she had kept. This was a note thanking her for some Turkish delight, which she had not sent. She has lived in the same cottage for more than 40 years: a stability that is in marked contrast to her itinerant youth.

Her first five years were spent in India, where her father was commissioner in Agra. When Pauline and her elder sister came back to England for schooling, their mother opted to come with them, writing to her husband that he was "free to do as he pleased". Years of living in other people's houses, punctuated by holidays in Swiss hotels when her father came home on leave, eventually ended when he retired from India. Although her parents were virtual strangers to each other, they kept up the formal pretence of their marriage and settled near Farnham. Pauline, as the dutiful unmarried daughter, found herself looking after them, and trying to illustrate in the small hours. When her mother died, Pauline encouraged her father to marry the mistress who had followed him back from India and who was by then living nearby.

After a spell at the Slade, where her art training was curtailed because of the war, and a job as a hydrographic draughtsman, Pauline moved into the cottage near her parents. Here, she devoted herself to her drawing until - in 1961 - her solitude was interrupted by a knock on the door from the local dog-meat man, an ex-German prisoner-of-war called Fritz Otto Gasch. Within weeks of meeting, he and Pauline married. She and her husband befriended the Tolkiens, whose Christianity she felt to be more rooted and unobtrusive than Lewis's. They often used to motor down to Bournemouth after Tolkien retired from Oxford. When Fritz died suddenly in 1988, the shock made her lose large chunks of her memory. "I can hardly remember anything about our time together. Fortunately, I had my work to keep me busy." Two years after Fritz's death she received a telephone call from his daughter by his first marriage. Only after the Eastern bloc opened up had she been able to discover that her father had stayed in England after the war and remarried. She never met him but was delighted to find the woman who had loved him.

They are in constant contact and Pauline receives videos of the grandchildren. It is as if Fritz had sent her back something of himself. Meanwhile, the work-table in her study is covered with pages from her latest project. Fantastical beasts in vibrant colours leap from a new medieval bestiary. There cannot be many artists producing such fresh work 50 years on - but then, there is something curiously timeless about her cottage. When I drove away in the evening, a fox followed me down the lane. I felt as if I had revisited the Narnia I loved as a child, but without the mothballs.


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