In the panoply of Prefab Sprout record sleeve designs, the peculiar covers for the EP releases of “Nightingales” pass largely unremarked. Curiously primitive, almost childlike images of a woman seated at a piano, and, for the 12″ a falling or dancing figure in a room filled with birds and painted with stars.
There’s a surrealistic, other-worldliness to them, and for me they’re utterly captivating. They are the work of Margaret Shields, a musician and artist born as the daughter of a master mariner in Middlesbrough
I’m not going to cut and paste her entire biography, which can be found on her website where many of her other works can be discovered. But I will just lift the section that notes her links to the world of Sproutology:
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Margaret gradually developed a different style of painting – imaginative, sometimes surrealist or fantastic, but always based on building blocks of visual material found close at hand and sometimes quite mundane in origin. In this period her work was sold to several figures in the pop music industry, including Thomas Dolby (of Dolby Sound) and Guy Fletcher (of ‘Dire Straits’) and used for album covers for ‘Prefab Sprout’, whose female singer, Wendy Smith, was the daughter of Margaret’s first life model. This period of painting came to a natural end in the mid 1990s, and Margaret returned to her observational roots, though an element of fantasy and sometimes strangeness is still often present in her work.
It’s much easier to find images of her later work than the fantastical “Nightingales” covers online, and an image search is extremely rewarding. It’s extremely satisfying: the sense of place and atmosphere of urban landscapes is beautifully conveyed: you know instinctively what it would be like to visit these places and you can feel and smell the rain on your face as you tramp in your imagination past the red brick buildings. Yet with flashes of wit and imagination that lift the paintings past mere topographic expressions: in one blustery seascape, an unfortunate is deliciously carried away by the wind while a rainbow forms. It’s really tremendous work, and, dare I say it, not horrendously expensive.
So very well worth investigating. Meanwhile, have a good look at the covers for Nightingales, and maybe find more in them than you had previously?