The Fantastical Printed World of Charles van Sandwyk

Four steps up into an old building in Gastown, past the cast iron planter filled with hellebores about to burst into bloom, I turn the brass knob on the hunter-green door of Charles van Sandwyk & Co. A bell rings, and a jovial voice calls out, “Hello there.” I am instantly transported to a bygone age.

His head topped with dark-blond curls, lightening at the temples, van Sandwyk sports a short beard and wire-rimmed spectacles. But it’s his warm smile and the twinkle in his eyes that are most noticeable at first glance. Quick to be kind and inviting, he asks if I’d like a cup of tea.

As the kettle comes to a boil, we walk through the shop, pausing first at a wall designed, van Sandwyk says, to reflect his entire career. The assortment includes artworks for sale from private collectors as well as some of his early paintings. “There’s a salmon-crested cockatoo,” he points out. “Painted from a trip I did to Australia from Fiji when I was 21.” He scans the adjacent pieces. “These are some of my favourites,” he says. “This is the frontispiece to The Blue Fairy Book I did for The Folio Society in 2003. And of course, my favourite story of all from that book is the French tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

The goal with the space was, he tells me, to create an artist’s salon inspired by “those lovely old department stores in London like Liberty and Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason.” His canvas may not be as grand, but each season he creates a unique window display. “It’s more fun than just one staid look,” he notes. “I think it’s more like a salon because it’s also partly our palette, our canvas to work on.”

Born in Johannesburg in 1966, van Sandwyk came to Deep Cove, North Vancouver, at 11, eventually studying graphic design at Capilano College. His father ran the art department at BC Rail and, recognizing his son’s creativity at an early age, was supportive of his artistic pursuits. “My dad was lovely—one of life’s gentlemen. He was also hard on me,” van Sandwyk recalls. “He was very discerning.”

As a child, van Sandwyk was entranced by the work of Beatrix Potter, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Gauguin. His favourite was the British illustrator Arthur Rackham. He took art in high school and until recently thought that was when his own writing and illustrating began. Then a friend reminded him of a story he had written about a bear when he was only six years old. “I’d just forgotten,” van Sandwyk says with a shrug. “But it was always going to be like this,” he says of his work. “It’s not going to change the world, but it’s valuable for people who want to still feel there’s a good place in their heart to visit. That is where this comes from.”

Charles van Sandwyk and Waisiki Doughty are longtime friends and partners in the business.

A writer, poet, illustrator, printmaker, and painter of delicate artworks and inventor of tales scribed in exquisite handwriting, van Sandwyk populates his imaginary world with fantasy and minutiae: fairies, gnomes, animals, birds, and insects. He owns two publishing houses—The Fairy Press and CVS Fine Arts—that produce beautiful handmade books filled with his writing and illustrations.

Many of the books are stacked on the long oval table in the centre of the store. “I didn’t think we’d have enough material to open a shop, but Waisiki [Doughty], my assistant, said, ‘Charlie, I’ve calculated all the books you’ve done over the years. You’ve done 80 books—surely half of them are still in print.’ And so we have 42 books here on display and available. They’re all in print.”

Those written, scribed, and illustrated by van Sandwyk are softcover books, printed locally, hand-stitched and assembled, some with illustrations hand-tipped by Doughty. Since 2003, van Sandwyk has worked with The Folio Society, illustrating classic titles such as The Blue Fairy Book, The Wind in the Willows, and Alice in Wonderland. His own stories, complete with his illustrations, have also been published by the society in hardcover. Most recently, his Letters From Fairyland was selected for a limited edition.

“It’s so beautiful, and I’m so proud of them for taking that on because it has a lot of handwork: little letters to fit into little pockets and fairy money and little accordion-fold things. And they did it in the middle of COVID—everything had to be handed from one person to another on a 40-foot barge pole. It was all very, very hard.”

Van Sandwyk and Doughty met in Fiji more than 37 years ago and have forged a lasting friendship. “I suppose I’m the boss, in a way, but we’ve spent so much of our lives taking care of each other and each other’s families that it’s just family,” van Sandwyk says, before adding, “And it’s a business partnership.”

He splits his time between Deep Cove and Fiji, where he lives in a simple home of grass thatch that he and Doughty’s family built on land he leased from them. Their friendship runs deep. Doughty was introduced to his wife by van Sandwyk and named his first-born Charles Junior, or CJ.

“My serious collectors are from Vancouver and have collected for years. When it comes to the artwork, we’re a destination.”

In addition to assembling the handmade books, Doughty is responsible for the publishing and wholesaling. “He is at least a 50 per cent part of every single decision that’s made,” van Sandwyk says. “He’s also a great one for thinking up great projects such as Twenty-one Years, Twenty-one Prints, and Suites.” A presentation of 65 etchings, hand-bound in leather, with just 10 copies made for sale in 2007, and priced at $10,000, Twenty-one Years sold quickly. Soon afterward, copies started selling on the open market at two and three times the original price.

After looping the table, we come to a large wooden rack suspended from the wall, displaying a huge selection of cards and prints. “We’ve supplied our greeting cards to book merchants and gift stores for 30 years, so we have a big selection of them here, too.” The rack features dozens of cards, adorned with whimsical illustrations, some with quotes—apparently a mere quarter of the designs he’s created over the years.

Though focused on his own work, the store also contains other curios, including household items such as napkins and soaps, chocolates and stationery, and kimono-fabric-covered journals from Japan, handmade by octogenarian master bookbinder Matsuda Tsutomu. A small selection of toys, from tin soldiers and men on horses to stuffed animals, have been chosen for the shop by nine-year-old CJ. “I want him involved, so he chooses the toys,” van Sandwyk says.

“People come in and they think that we are running a vanity project for a deceased artist,” he says with a smile and a hint of amusement in his voice. “One young lady came in, and she says, ‘Oh my goodness, did you get permission from the artist’s descendants to open this shop?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And she’s going on about things, and then she says, ‘You must be his biggest fan!’ I had to level with her, so I told her that it was my own shop. She burst into tears.” She had owned a copy of his book Afterglow since she was a baby, she explained. You build the person up as a legend in your mind, van Sandwyk notes, “even if they’re not one.”

His customers “are all ages. All walks of life. Lots of Americans and tourists,” he says. “But my serious collectors are from Vancouver and have collected for years. When it comes to the artwork, we’re a destination,” he adds. “People who know about us, they come in. Some have come from England knowing that we are here, and they made sure it was one of the things they would see while they were here.”

He heads to the display rack and extracts a small book, Yours Truly, a short autobiography with an even smaller tipped-in booklet titled “The Child Within,” from which he reads aloud.

“Life is fleeting, but life is grand. I only mention this, dear reader, because it’s a reminder of who we are deep down. There is a child in us each and every one. And rather than leave him in a lonely place, I aim to honour that child in all I do. Together, let us exalt the joyful, the peaceful, and the beautiful in life.”

Charles van Sandwyk & Co. is located at 315 Cambie Street in Gastown. Read more from our Summer 2023 issue.

Post Date:

July 24, 2023