The first children’s book illustrated by Quentin Blake was John Yeoman’s A Drink of Water which came out in 1960. (It may have been preceded that year by Come Here till I Tell You, humorous texts by Patrick Campbell which Quentin had illustrated in the Spectator.) John, who was a friend of Quentin’s, had concocted his stories so that the two of them might have something to offer a publisher and Faber took a chance on this unknown couple, printing Quentin’s ten full- page drawings as three-colour separations.
The stories, which were invented or adapted animal fables were succinct and good for reading aloud, with some delectable phrasing:
‘“Fmoo, fmoo!” [roared the bear] at the top of his voice, which is, as you know, bear singing’.
‘[The crane] didn’t invite the heron to sit down with her as there wasn’t enough room for all the legs…’
and the drawings, which also included some black and white vignettes in the text, made a perfect match. It was worthy start to the wonders that would follow.
As is the way of things however, A Drink of Water became lost from view and is now a rare book. The partnership though continued (Yeoman’s little story of The Boy who Sprouted Antlers was the first successor a year later) and now, forty-seven years later, the Yeoman/Blake collaborations have achieved a total of some 29 titles. There may not be any magic in those numbers but you don’t need round numbers or anniversaries as an excuse for celebrating so fruitful a partnership and this year it has been topped and tailed by a handsome reissue of the first book from Thames & Hudson (a newish name for children’s book publishing) together with a brilliant addition to the canon as a fifty-first birthday present to Klaus Flugge and his Andersen Press.
This is All the Year Round whose joyous contents are made plain on the cover:
‘Every month in rhyme, from spring to wintertime’ below the dancing figures of a be-scarfed chap with a sledge and a Spring bouquet-laden girl. Nothing could be simpler. Each month arrives on a recto with an unfinished verse stanza which is then completed as a kind of punch-line as you turn the leaf to the verso:-
I found a super bathing-place, concealed among the trees.
In Spring it looks delightful – but the water’s fit to freeze.
I use it most in August (there’s just me and several sheep)
The water’s warm and tempting…
…But it’s only ankle-deep.
And of course, every event is garnished with the parade of Blakean characters, all of whom I am sure we have met before, in equally frantic circumstances, colourful in their garb and bounding with energy. It would be a spoiler to give away the wonderful ending contrived for December.
By way of marking the return to print of the first book of the partnership and the arrival of the latest, the Quentin Blake Gallery at the House of Illustration has mounted a small exhibition of select artwork from nine of the Yeoman/Blake books, together with some proofs of the first edition of A Drink of Water, and a lone, lorn paperback copy of The Boy who Sprouted Antlers. There are mostly four representative pictures from each selected book, some grouped within a single frame and all either in pen and ink or pen and watercolour on watercolour paper. It makes for a cheering but extremely puzzling display.
It may sound a tad obvious, but the art of illustration (which the House is founded to celebrate) presupposes the linking of graphic work to some functional purpose: a cartoon joke, an advertising slogan, a poem, or a told story. The latter purpose is particularly relevant in this case for the whole show is predicated on the long collaboration between a single writer and his friend the artist. What the visitor (who may know little of the background to the books of either) is confronted with is a set of images almost entirely unmoored from their fellows or from the authorial contents of the books which they are designed to accompany.
I give below what is near enough a complete list of the collaborative work [see list] and this will indicate the versatility of John Yeoman’s inventive gifts which are sadly neither fully represented nor explained in the pictures on the walls. The illustrations from Sixes and Sevens which are shown with the typographic text pasted on ready for the printer at least give a clue that this is a jovial counting book but viewers must surely question what’s going on elsewhere. Quite apart from the help that knowing the stories would give, ought not the customers be told that John Yeoman contrived a rhymed text for The Foskett Family Circus to fit pictures already created to decorate the Northwick Park Hospital. Is it not of interest that the two pictures from The Heron and the Crane, one not used in the finished book, are illustrating a story first published in A Drink of Water (I have not been able to check if the text was in any way modified). An explanation also seems in order about the rather confused titling of The Puffin Book of Impossible Records (1975) from which all the watercolours are taken, one of which was dropped from the Macmilllan edition of 1991 which was retitled The World’s Laziest Duck and introduced two new pictures including that from which the new volume took its title (not in the exhibition).
The Improbable Records is, for me, one of the great books of the partnership and I was sorry that several others, such as The Wild Washerwomen (1979) or the magnificent Do-It-Yourself House that Jack Built (1994) were not present to add their visual delights to the show and thus, perhaps, propel visitors to find the books themselves with John Yeoman’s vital texts. The show runs at the House till 4th March 2018 after which it is planned to move to larger venues with an expanded content. While one doesn’t want to plaster the walls with possibly distracting notices, it would be lovely to know that some sort of hand-list could accompany it so that this great partnership was more fully celebrated.
And now for something different…
Tove Jansson: a European Touring Exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, 25 October 2017 – 28 January 2018
The universal association of Tove Jansson with the stories about the Moomins needs little explanation, but this display over six rooms at Dulwich provides an illuminating context for the intense creative life within which those works were created. Jansson was born into an artistic family in Helsinki in 1914, her father a sculptor and her mother a painter and graphic designer, so it is of little wonder that she too sought to become a painter, studying at schools in Stockholm, Paris, and Helsinki (although Finnish, the family were among those Finns whose first language was Swedish).
The first two rooms of the show are devoted to the varied results of what was clearly a prolific output – life studies, self-portraits, fantasy pictures and, later, abstract studies from nature – but seemingly without a governing direction. The political woes of the Baltic states in the 30s and 40s were not conducive to a stable career and perhaps her most impressive work from this period is seen in the ferocious graphic covers that she did for the Swedish magazine Garm, satirizing both war and the totalitarian forces essentially responsible for it.
There can be little doubt that Jansson’s pacific temperament and the centrality of her belief in Home as a base for civilised living and a surety against which calamities and adventures may be confronted are a main source for her invention of Moominland and its inhabitants which began to formulate themselves during the 1940s. The arrival of Småtrollen och den Översvämningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood) in Sweden in 1945 saw the first of the little creatures triumph against a natural disaster and the founding of the community in Moomin Valley from which the nine novels and the three picture books take their being. These were conceived as stories in which words and illustrations would be interdependent – Jansson’s visualizations are essential – and the rooms devoted to select drawings and preliminary drafts are revelatory of her superb graphic skills (pen and ink may be the main medium but you can see also her use of scraper-board, pencil, and even ball-point pen). What’s more, as is now becoming better known, she applied her techniques to brilliant interpretations of Swedish editions of Tolkien’s Hobbit and Dodgson’s Snark, while his Alice unusually introduces gouache tints.
The final room is devoted in part to miscellaneous work arising from publicity ephemera, but its main addition to the oeuvre is in some rare examples of the one-time famous strip cartoons that were in 1947 commissioned for the Finnish paper Ny Tid (New Times) but later became world famous through their appearance daily in the London Evening News. An essay by Paul Gravett in the main exhibition catalogue gives little-known details about this venture, which was focused on an adult readership, and is here backed up with examples of Jansson’s preparatory drafts and sketches and printed versions of the strips, most of whose originals have disappeared. Unlike the plain walls against which most of the exhibits are shown, those of this large room are themselves done up as a giant greyscale Moominland forest landscape which is strikingly reminiscent of Max’s dreamscape in Where the Wild Things Are.
In conclusion, I am bound to remark how, in contrast to provisions by the House of Illustration, Dulwich not only explains its exhibits with neat and unobtrusive labels but offers a ‘hand-held guide’ to them which includes translations of the narrative pictures that help one to understand what the illustration is actually illustrating.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.
John Yeoman A Drink of Water and other stories, illus. Quentin Blake. Second edition. Thames & Hudson, 2017, 978-0-5006-5135-3, £10.95hbk
John Yeoman All the Year Round, illus Quentin Blake, Andersen Press, 2017, 978-1-7834-4613-1, £12.99hbk