Quentin Blake describes the principles behind the travelling exhibition of artwork he helped set up.
The Box of Delights: or as they call it in Italy, Lo Scrigno delle Meraviglie. I happen to have this information ready to hand because a year ago I was at work on a set of ten illustrations for an Italian translation of Masefield’s extraordinary book. It was about this time that the Wales and West of England branch of the Association of Illustrators asked me to help with the preparation of an exhibition of children’s book illustration. The show was to be put together by Sue Shields and the staff of Newport Museum and Art Gallery. I was to select five artists from the Aol membership in the west who would show their work, and to invite fifteen other illustrators of my own choosing to take part in the exhibition. I knew from experience that it’s nice for an exhibition to have a title but to find one that’s suitable can be very difficult. Masefield’s title looked as though it might serve us too and, hoping that we weren’t being too optimistic in offering delights, we snapped it up straightaway. More about that later.
There was to be room for about sixty frames of work, and to limit ourselves to twenty artists seemed to give us a reasonable sample of each. At my suggestion we also encouraged the exhibitors to restrict themselves to two or three books, rather than a scatter of drawings from various works.
Of course, no sooner had I embarked on the pleasure of deciding whom I would like to take part than I discovered the distress of having to come to terms with the idea that there were others whom I would have to leave out. Twenty names does not give you much room to manoeuvre, particularly in such a varied field. And the principle of selection could not be, I was sure, to establish the twenty best, twenty most celebrated or twenty anything else.
The best analogy I can find for my procedure, I think, is that of arranging a dinner for your friends. The idea of the meal we offer in the exhibition is not a smidgeon of everything tasty in the larder. It’s a selection of good things which I hope go together. It may entail choosing salmon and not sole, without prejudice to sole; or pheasant to rabbit, without prejudice to rabbit; or broccoli to parsnips, and so on. Many things that one would like to have in, on another occasion, are left out.
One thing I knew I wanted – returning from food to artists – was as wide a range of age and experience as possible. I was fortunate to have my invitation accepted by Harold Jones and C Walter Hodges, both in their eighties, and both still with pen in hand; which gives us the opportunity not only to salute them but also to emphasise the continuity of achievement in illustration.
The artists who get most showing in this exhibition, however, are those of a new, or at least new-ish, wave; even though many of them are already well-established. That they should take the limelight is, I think, quite natural; but my choice is reinforced, I suppose, by the fact of my having spent twenty-five years teaching at the Royal College of Art. I can remember seeing big drawings by Nicola Bayley, for instance; and I can remember that, after her work had taken on the miniature detailed character which we now know as hers, Nicola was able to produce a tiny portfolio of work from her handbag. In addition to her ability to do this trick, what I’ve always admired about Nicola’s work is not only the detail in itself, but also the striking effects she is able to bring off with it; and, perhaps most of all, that while performing these ingenuities, she doesn’t lose her sense of the identities of her characters. In a similar way Angela Barrett has developed a very carefully-worked style that is able to evoke an atmosphere of edginess, of strangeness.
For some reason I associate in my mind three of these illustrators: Charlotte Voake, Emma Chichester Clark and Patrick Benson. I think it may be that each of them has a sense of humour which appeals to me; a sense of humour which doesn’t exist in isolation but gives a zest and edge to the richness of the work. Charlotte Voake is wonderfully lively and elegant at the same time. It’s as though she had been taught by Edward Ardizzone and Jane Austen; and she always seems to know where to dispose everything on the page; design just runs out her pen. Emma Chichester Clark, with a not unsimilar stylishness and humour, enriches her images in strength of tone and colour, but they don’t forfeit their vivacity. She can start off in nonsense and bring to it atmosphere and poetry. James Reeves’ Ragged Robin seems to have been waiting for her to illustrate it.
Patrick Benson embraced what must have been a very congenial subject when be took on the exploits of Baron Munchausen. The vein of wild humour and straightfaced detailed handling that he brings to it have striking affinities with a version of perhaps forty years earlier by the painter and illustrator Brian Robb. In fact in some ways Patrick Benson seems to have inspirational messages flowing to him direct from the thirties; but they produce not pastiche or nostalgia, as with many of his contemporaries, but the real thing. We shall soon see The Minpins, Roald Dahl’s last story, illustrated by Patrick in full colour. Unusually for both author and artist, humour is not the main feature of this story, and it’s interesting to see Patrick Benson without it, bringing off some effects of wonder and complexity that few other illustrators could cope with. And if you want a change of mood from these three artists, look at John Watson. He lives on the street more than they do; runs up and down it, in fact, making terse wry comments. Perhaps no one has yet established the best form for channelling all that dark Scottish energy. But watch out.
As a result of this emphasis on relative newcomers, the artists least well served by this exhibition are those of (roughly) my own generation. But these are the ones, I imagine, who are the most well-known anyway. The few such illustrators I have invited – Fritz Wegner, John Lawrence, Justin Todd, Michael Foreman – offer, I believe, interesting contrasts of treatment and approach.
At one early stage of selection I have to admit that, in addition to a range of British illustrators, I wanted to ask one or two illustrators from other countries, to emphasise that connection: Philippe Dumas or Puig Rosado or Claude Lapointe from France; The Tjong Khing from Holland; and so on. Clearly it was mad to attempt it within the limits of this exhibition, though enjoyable to think about. Axel Scheffler, whom we are passing off as British for the purposes of this exhibition because he lives in England and works for English publishers (among others), happens really to be German. So at least we have one gesture across the Channel, if not across the Atlantic.
The second element of the exhibition is the catalogue, which we have tried to make not only a list of the exhibitors, but something worth looking at in its own right. The illustrations are not those in the exhibition, but drawings which, whether intended for publication or not, are black and white. There are also comments from the artists. Some are about the artist’s attitude and relationship to the book; Angela Barrett, for instance:
Setting a scene, furnishing it, whether with trees or chairs of my choosing, and trying to create the right atmosphere for the yarn. I’ve never attempted to illustrate a densely populated story. I like a close circle of characters and the presence of animals all in a place where I’d be happy, or at least interested, to go.
Or Catherine Brighton:
All my books are concerned, one way or another, with our vulnerability in childhood.
What fires me is the creation of an inner landscape, the landscape of the children in each of the books. Sometimes they are historical figures as in Nijinsky and sometimes my own imaginative creations as in Dearest Grandmama. In them I see my own childhood fears and pleasures. I choose historical figures, the story of whose lives and times resonate.
Nijinsky describes a child’s world very different from my post-war London childhood but the quality of events and what children make of them are not so very different. The small boy in the shaft of light, cold with fear, is me. Nijinsky’s father was deserting the family, for me it was a different trauma.
While Catherine Brighton’s work calls for a generous trawl of reference material, Penny Dale depends on drawing and observing children:
… particularly my daughter and her friends. They often influence the way characters in the stories behave. Children’s gestures and movements are unselfconscious, transparent and expressive. The tilt of a head, the amount of lower lip with a frown, all sorts of small inflections contribute to the feel of a moment.
If it’s my own story, I often have a particular child in mind while the ideas are developing. When it’s someone else’s text, I find it a good test of whether or not I will be able to illustrate it if I know, fairly early on, of a child who will fit and belong to the story. Almost like casting a play or film.
And while some illustrators are clear about the fact they don’t even think about children while they’re at work on a children’s book, others, like Lucy Cousins, obviously find help from being near them:
Before my daughter was born last summer I illustrated several children’s books. Now there’s not much time to work, but lots of time to enjoy looking at books with her. As I turn the pages of my own board books, she carefully studies each picture, smiles and then reaches for the book. After staring intently at the bar code, she then sucks the spine until it begins to go soggy.
Some write about their technique and their materials, which can be in themselves a stimulus. Charlotte Voake, for instance, thinks that her best drawings are the ones she does on the backs of envelopes, but for The Best of Aesop’s Fables:
All the drawings … are done on a wonderful French watercolour paper with rapidograph, and painted with Schminke watercolours, which I find clear and fresh.
and for John Lawrence wood-engraving is a direct link with tradition:
The whole history of children’s books grows out of the engraving tradition of chapbooks and Victorian juvenilia and I’m still fascinated by it. I very much enjoy drawing directly but when the right book comes along, there is an added pleasure in collecting the wood from the blockmaker and sharpening the tools with a feeling of anticipation and promise. It can be nerve-racking insofar as one can’t afford too blithely to restart a complicated and expensive block, but perhaps this is sometimes the edge one needs when it is all important to stay on the tightrope.
We get some comments too on the job itself. Justin Todd shows one aspect of it:
… chained to the drawing board, day after day, obsessively, painting pictures which are sometimes quite good but never good enough.
Michael Foreman takes a more cheerful view:
What I usually fail to get across when talking about illustrations is that it is FUN. A daily delight. A wallow in dreams.
Somehow I think those two accounts of it aren’t altogether incompatible, and that most of us who do the job are familiar with both.
In addition to the illustrators’ own notes and comments, the catalogue contains three pieces specially commissioned (as well as an introduction by me, but by the time you have read this you will know everything I say there). First, because Walter Hodges had responded in such an enthusiastic and interested fashion to the suggestion that he take part in the exhibition, we took the opportunity to lay another burden on his shoulders and asked him if he would write an extended piece about being an illustrator. He observes, reflecting on the relative natures of painting and illustration:
It has been a great purpose of painters for more than a hundred years to try to escape from this tyranny of explicit . subject matter and use their art more and more to express the varieties of individual human perception, even into what might be called forms of visual music. Yet in all the time before this, it was precisely for their value as illustrators of the world and its persons, places and events, real or imaginary, that all artists were supposed to be used and trained; and so in my time, rather backwardly perhaps, was I.
Walter Hodges’ training was ‘under one of the last great Victorian illustrators’, Edmund J Sullivan; so that he represents, in the context of our exhibition, a tradition continued. Albeit, I think one has to add, a tradition of the depiction of incident and the conveying of information now rather seriously eroded. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the enormous proliferation of the mechanical image; but the mechanical image can’t do everything, and another contributory factor, I suspect, is the unwillingness or inability of publishers to pay for black-and-white illustrations. Or is it just that novels for children no longer have illustrations? At one time it was possible for a talented illustrator to be discouraged enough to give up the game altogether by the hopeless inadequacy of the fees offered for black-and-white illustrations. Nowadays, with the advent of international editions in colour, an illustrator has a better chance of making a decent living; but perhaps one of the training grounds for draughtsmanship has disappeared.
The background to this situation – the economics of book production – was sketched for us in a piece by Ron van der Meer. Ron van der Meer has red pointed shoes and a Dutch accent and is very good at telling jokes; even more to the point he is an illustrator, a graphic designer, a book packager and a paper engineer. His brisk review of the elements in the production of a book (books are born in some ways very much as babies are born, he suggests) is, in my view, not only interesting in itself but helps to explain why many books look the way they do.
When Russell Hoban agreed to write something for us, I thought – perhaps at that stage we both thought – that it would be about what it is like to be illustrated, and perhaps something about how text and drawings work together. In the event it proved to be more unexpected and more moving: in a reminiscence of the books of his youth, he suggests the importance of illustrations; even, what it is like to look at them. Of Treasure Island he says:
I haven’t seen those drawings for forty-eight years and I can’t recall every one but the look of them is vivid in my mind and brings back the cosiness, the delight, the sheer well-being I felt when I first read the book, sitting in our wild cherry tree in the summer when I was ten.
And of his long-lost Arabian Nights:
The illustrations were all brush and ink by an unforgettably exuberant draughtsman whose name has vanished from my mind; wild they were every one and rumbustious with life – some were full-page, some were vignettes, some took up part of a page and the type ran around them … I’ve read somewhere of a Chinese or Japanese god of ink, and those drawings were certainly blessed by that god. The paper was coarse and thick, the ink lived in it with a strong life. That book was a treasure, my thrown-away Arabian Nights, gone for ever.
He goes on to say that
making books with pictures is a natural function of the human animal – we need them because the world in our eyes is not enough, it has to be imaged in other ways and other styles, it has to be brought into the what-iffery of the mind where everything is more so and where anything can happen. Illustrated books for children help to furnish the mind and improve the crucial faculty; they help lookers become perceivers – most of all they simply give more world to the reader all through life.
I have suggested that the exhibition consists of two elements, the original works and the catalogue with its comments. Russell Hoban’s observations about books bring us to what is in effect the third element of the exhibition: the return to the books themselves, where we encounter the pictures in their intended sequence and scale; reflecting the text; helping to unfold the story; leading us to turn the pages.
Here I’m already quoting from my own introduction, and perhaps I can conclude with its conclusion:
Purloining Masefield’s title was initially … a piece of opportunism; but as our work on the exhibition progressed there seemed to unfold from it an appropriateness that I hadn’t envisaged. I had thought of our box as something to take things out of. Masefield’s is not like that. The small flat rectangular box with the worn shagreen cover given into Kay Harker’s care by Cole Hawlings, the travelling puppeteer, is a box with magic properties; it allows the holder to go small, go swift. It’s a box, as Kay discovers, to look into and to enter, through which to travel in space and go back in time, into winter and into the heart of summer. Portable magic. The nearest thing we have to it is a book.
The Box of Delights Exhibition opens at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Gwent on 4 May 1991 and runs until 15 June.
It then goes on tour to:
Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London, 17 July – 25 August 1991
Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, 30 November 1991 – 5 January 1992
Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno, 24 January – 7 March 1992
A possible venue may be Glasgow, Kelvingrove in 1992, but dates have yet to be agreed.
The exhibition also includes the original drawings for Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Edward Ardizzone and a selection of Quentin’s own illustrations for Masefield’s Box of Delights.