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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 March, 2004, 12:09 GMT
The best-selling artist of all time
By Stephen Tomkins

Her illustrations have graced the pages of a worldwide best-seller - and with a new edition out, she is set to sell more in 2004. But who is she?

If you tried to guess who was the best-selling artist of all time, the first names that would come to mind might be van Gogh or Picasso.

Palm Sunday from the Good News Bible
Crowds greet Jesus on Palm Sunday
But a moment's reflection tells us that the world doesn't work like that. A more considered answer might be Charles Schulz or Matt Groening - Messrs Peanuts and Simpsons respectively.

The truth could hardly be more different or more surprising. According to the publisher HarperCollins, the world's bestseller is a Swiss religious artist by the name of Annie Vallotton. Even if the name is unfamiliar, chances are you may have seen her work or own an unopened copy of one of her books.

In the 1970s, Vallotton drew the simple illustrations for the Good News Bible, a new basic English translation. She provided 500 line drawings of figures dancing, praying, fighting and raising the dead. These depicted not only the scripture, but the translators' philosophy that the Bible should be accessible and enjoyable.

Her previous work was Priority, a book of 60 drawings covering the life of Jesus. This fell far enough short of bestseller status for her Parisian publisher, who allegedly dumped 3,000 copies in the Seine. But a New York publisher thought it was a good enough book to commission her to do the good book.

Marketed especially for children and second-language readers, the Good News Bible has sold 140 million copies worldwide. This multiplied by 500 pictures, say the publishers, gives Vallotton a world record 70 billion picture sales.

Evocative lines

The league table maths may be dubious (by the same rules Schulz must have sold more in book form alone, let alone newspaper strips), but even being one of the world's bestsellers is quite an achievement for a publicity-shy religious artist. Some may think it's appropriate that the world's bestselling artist is one nobody has heard of, seeing as the Bible is the bestseller few people actually read.

Jesus on the cross from the Good News Bible
Similarly, the charm of the illustrations is in their unassuming simplicity. Few of her characters have much in the way of faces - or any other detail - and yet they are full of life and character, and can be very evocative. Vallotton's aim, she says, is "to give maximum expression with a minimum of lines".

One of the most memorable examples is of the crucifixion in Luke's gospel. The thorn-crowned head hangs forward, below the single line of the shoulder. Above it, two right-angles are the cross.

Somehow this plain sketch conveys the desolation of Jesus far more powerfully than two hours of Mel Gibson's blood-spattered film, The Passion of the Christ.

Equally moving is the image accompanying one of the more miserable psalms. A stark figure sits asking why God has abandoned him. But the grey shading seems carelessly out of line with the outline, so that the head hangs low, but the spirit within hangs lower still.

Job from the Good News Bible
Job rails against the Lord's injustice
In a more detailed image, the patriarch Job punches the ground in the violence of his rage against God. This is not only poignant, but brave, being a more honest depiction of the biblical Job - a protester against the injustice of the Lord - than much classic art.

Many happier images capture the eye too. Children clamouring for palm branches to join the crowds welcoming Jesus. The parade of animals making their way to the ark. The good Samaritan cupping the wounded traveller's head in his hand.

Product of her time

It is in some of these more positive images where Vallotton's work can now seem a little dated. A product of the late 60s and early 70s, there is a definite hippyish vein running through the drawings.

When St Paul says, "You are all one in union with Christ Jesus", we get a globe topped with representatives of major races, enfolded in the arms of Christ, an image Coca Cola might pay millions for. And there may be a few too many women leaping about with tambourines for modern tastes.

But most of the drawings have a timelessness, born of their simplicity. The largely expressionless figures make little attempt to interpret the text, but rather invite the reader to do so.

This is their strength, and why we can expect to keep seeing them for a good while yet.

Noah's Ark from the Good News Bible


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