Should children’s book illustration be assessed separately from adult illustration?
Quentin Blake reflects on the place of children’s book illustration within the history of illustration and the links between illustrating for adult and child audiences.
The message of what I am about to write is very simple, in fact some may think it too simple to require statement. It is that the history of children’s book illustration is not a clearly defined and separate story. That we ever do think of it as that is perhaps because it gets treated together with the history of the children’s book, which gives the impression that it started exclusively in chapbooks with their primitive and energetic woodcuts, soon to be enriched by the genius of Bewick.
None of this is in itself wrong; but I suppose the notion that the story of illustration is an altogether much more untidy one was underlined for me by the circumstances of my own beginnings. As a boy I liked drawing, and I liked humour: it was pointed out to me that one way I could combine these two was by doing humorous drawing – jokes and illustrations – for the press. A few years after I had started to do this it occurred to me (by now I had trained as a teacher) that children might also like this humour, and that the format of a book offered even more interesting possibilities than the magazine. Once I had done that, and was taken with the habit, I became aware that I was not the first – by far from the first – who had followed some such course. My purpose here is simply to enumerate some of those instances.
A clear visual message
It gives me the opportunity to celebrate (if I may be allowed to begin very far from the beginning) the achievement of Walter Trier. Here and now we know him best as the artist of Emil and the Detectives , and as such we celebrate him every year with the announcement of the Maschler Award and the presentation of that engaging statuette of Emil himself. But Trier’s work is very much more rich and varied than is suggested by that book, even though we get an accurate taste of it there. In Germany in the thirties Trier was an accomplished magazine artist, producing covers and illustrations for humorous magazines and women’s magazines, and I suspect that one reason for his success in children’s books was not only his humour but the experience of giving a clear visual message with what was nevertheless quite a subtle mixture of innocence and sophistication. Later, Walter Trier was one of those blessings that Hitler inadvertently bestowed upon us when (like our beloved Fritz Wegner) he fled the attentions of the Nazis. What was then most on view was not in fact his children’s books but – I remember them well – his covers for the pocket magazine Lilliput (itself, like Picture Post, the brainchild of another refugee, Stefan Lorant).
Similar examples of a talent being shared between adult and youthful audiences exist from the beginning of children’s books; in fact, it is possible to see the political and satirical 18th century print, with its scenes of activity and fantasy (think of Boney carving a slice of the world with his sabre, not to mention more indelicate instances) as part of juvenile viewing, even without parental guidance – as these images were displayed to the public gaze in printshop windows. It was in this school that one of the great illustrators of the 19th century, George Cruikshank, learned his trade, since he was literally the apprentice of his father Isaac Cruikshank. Later he abandoned this mode and became a humorous observer and commentator on the life of his times. It was this Cruikshank, already a celebrated figure, who became the illustrator of the first works of the young Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist, as well as of other popular novels of the time. So that when we see him as the illustrator of Cinderella or of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we are looking at the work of someone who has behind him years of addressing the public, years of the practice of engraving, as well as the sort of imaginative vitality that can convincingly depict our hero riding at speed on the tail of a fox.
One of the great figures in the world of the 18th-century satirical print where Cruikshank had his roots was Thomas Rowlandson. There was at the time no method of faithfully reproducing those works in reed pen and watercolour, that wt think of as the main substance of his achievement; even though there were print techniques which offered quite a happy parallel effect. What I suspect, however, is that that fluency of drawing, subtlety of light and colour – so beautifully adapted to the depiction of transient activity; and so natural to the English temperament – muse have added some tincture to the visual influences of many of those who came, it later years, to the illustration of children’: books.
Very different artistic backgrounds
If we go back to the mid 19th century, I think it is worth noting three draughtsmen who came from very different artistic backgrounds to make their contribution; Lear, Dicky Doyle, John Tenniel. The example of Lear is the most striking, in that the informality of `nonsense’ for children allowed him to abandon the fidelity of the natural history and topographical artist for an urgent graphic shorthand, a visual demotic that looks forward to the 20th century. Curiously, the extraordinarily gifted Dicky Doyle had, in producing a 17th-century pastiche for a series in Punch (it was of Pepys, and called `Mr Pips, His Diary.’) produced a not altogether dissimilar simplification which could have proved very useful to him as a children’s book illustrator – though he never made use of it. It was only after he fell out with the proprietors of Punch that he seriously took to the business of children’s books; John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River is part of that result, as well as his charming illustrations to the Fairy Books, where the sweetness of sentiment is held in check by the accuracy and elegance of the delineation. My third example is in its way as extraordinary as the other two. I have no idea how it was that Tenniel, whose heavyweight woodenly authoritative political cartoons in Punch no doubt eventually earned him his knighthood, came to be commissioned to illustrate Alice . On the face of it, it had no right to succeed; and yet the fact that Tenniel seemed incapable of any stylistic adaptation was the secret of success.
He was as straight-faced as Magritte; who else could have reflected, by sheer conviction, the dark side of Carroll’s imaginings?
Techniques and approaches
Later in the century, when children’s books and their illustration truly settled into their separate life, the people who did the pictures were more evidently the children’s book illustrators we speak of now; in particular, that trio of artists (Crane, Caldecott and Greenaway) who seemed to have decided that children’s book characters, at least in England, wore the costumes of a former age. Even so, Walter Crane was a decorative artist who only gave part of his time to children’s books, and Randolph Caldecott, indisputably Lord of the Nursery, was still also the visual reporter of The Graphic ; even though in that role he couldn’t fail to show his penchant for activity and indeed for dance, as Maurice Sendak has identified it. And my sense of it is that it was at the same time, in the proliferating world of Parisian magazines, that some of the techniques and approaches that most of us have made use of were being developed.
From that world let me take just one example, and that of an artist who as far as I know never produced a children’s book. Caran d’Ache took the Russian for lead pencil as his nom de plume: many will be more familiar with his distinctive signature than with his drawings, because it is that that still appears today on your tin of Caran d’Ache crayons. He was a master at telling a story in pictures, with very carefully-plotted effects; think of Keaton or Jacques Tati. To do that all the more efficiently he developed a very economical but accurate line drawing – sometimes strangely reminiscent of Picasso in his classicising phase. I cannot help thinking that his distinctive sense of visual narrative must have helped to influence the approach of many a later artist.
Talents developed elsewhere
As we get into the 20th century there are plenty of other examples of artists who brought to children’s books a talent which they had developed elsewhere. It’s hard for us, for example, to think of E H Shepard nowadays in terms of anything but The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh ; and it’s true that those two distinctive ventures seemed to have the effect of focusing and concentrating his work so that, strangely, the anthropomorphic heroes are somehow more convincing, less conventionally comic, than the human beings. Nevertheless, Shepard’s was a drawing talent of which the charm and accuracy had much more often been used in lightly humorous comment and observation in (once again) Punch and other magazines. We find something of the same situation with two artists of quite different cultural backgrounds: Ludwig Bemelmans and (more recently) William Steig. Bemelmans wrote and drew in books, and in magazines like Holiday , about travel; in the first instance his own experiences of moving from Europe to the USA, and his reminiscences of the hotel business. In both word and image his art was that of the raconteur, and if he moved naturally into the world of children’s books it was perhaps in part the softening or romanticising effect of recollection on his work – so that a drawing of the church of St Germain-des-Pres suggests a village-like innocence which it probably didn’t really possess even in the thirties. At the same time his pictures had the gestural dash and enterprising formalisation of colour that were characteristic of modern painting, as well as an eye for detail (the table settings and the lampshades exactly right) and a sense of how to dispose a black-and-white drawing on the page. (I wonder what has become of the two very large and beautiful drawings of Paris that used to hang in the upstairs dining room of Andre Deutsch in Great Russell Street?) In the Madeline books those knowledgeable and affectionate cityscapes were added to a sense of how to bring off a story with economy and emphasis.
It is possible to imagine that William Steig might never have given children’s books the benefit of his abilities, because he didn’t set his hand to it until the age of about sixty. (Fortunately for all of us he is still practising his art now as he passes ninety.) Within the covers of a book he is able to make use of both his sympathy with children, earlier exemplified by the Small Fry of New York, as well as that later more poetical and symbolic form of drawing that the New Yorker was happy to see him explore in its pages. Was it perhaps also the authority afforded by those years of experience that ensured that there has always been a sort of straight-faced idiosyncrasy in his own distinctive take on the traditional materials of fable and fairy tale. His works seem familiar and yet unpredictable.
Lack of British sobriety
I remember seeing, in the fifties, the original version of Andre Francois’ Crocodile Tears (Les Larmes du Crocodile) , characteristic of the collaboration of the artist and his publisher/designer, Robert Delpire – the book was in the form of the box in which, in the story, the crocodile is sent back from Egypt to Paris. It was not only this, among the relatively few children’s books that have come from Francois’ pen, that, it seems to me, influenced the artists of the time; there were also his posters and editorial work for magazines full of visual ingenuity and readiness to bring into illustration the painterliness and colour sense of 20th-century painting, as well as the rough and improvisational quality of urgent draughtsmanship. I know that I found a sense of liberation in that lack of British sobriety; and, though I have to confess that I am only guessing, I see the influence of Francois in a number of contemporary illustrators – would, for instance, John Burningham, David McKee, Gerald Rose or Ralph Steadman be quite the same without it?
It will be all too evident to the reader that the notes and speculations that I have put down here do not hope for scholarly accuracy; they are not questions that I have researched so much as things I have stumbled upon while fossicking in books and magazines. What I do hope they suggest, however, in an approximate fashion, is that children’s book illustration is not something that we should consider tidily on its own quite separate criteria, but somewhere where paths cross and mingle, sometimes in interesting ways; and no doubt in many interesting ways that I haven’t even glanced at here. It’s evidently possible and proper to judge an illustrated book within its own terms of reference; but it may not be the most fun – and what should they know of England, as a great children’s writer once enquired, who only England know?
The Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake , OBE, RDI, is the illustrator of, amongst many others, the books of Roald Dahl. He was Head of the Illustration Department of the Royal College of Art from 1978-1986.