Brian Alderson outlines the thinking behind `Sing a Song for Sixpence’ – an exhibition he arranged at the British Library from October 1986 to January 1987. The purpose of the exhibition was not just to commemorate a great illustrator but, more ambitiously, to demonstrate `the integrity of picture-book art’.
Very little attempt is made to perceive historical continuities in picture-book art. When therefore the British Library offered me the chance to put on a small exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the death of Randolph Caldecott it struck me that it might be worth pursuing some of the critical/historical enquiries that are so often overlooked. For Caldecott may be seen as a pivotal figure in the development of the English picture book and it was arguable that his commemoration might justly take the form of a graphic celebration of this fact rather than being a ‘one-man show’. (Such a show had, in any case, been perfectly staged at Manchester City Art Gallery only a few years before.) My hope was to establish the pre-eminence of Caldecott’s place through my selection of books and drawings with their accompanying captions, and to provide a fuller critical rationale in an illustrated handbook.*
The substance of the argument is simple enough, and nowhere better expressed than by Maurice Sendak when he talks about ‘the rhythmic progression [through the pages of Caldecott’s book] – a sense of music and dance’. Picture books may come in all shapes and sizes. They may have narrative unity or be an unconnected sequence of subjects, as in an alphabet book or a collection of nursery rhymes. Their success however depends upon the integrity of the illustrator’s response within the covers of the book, and that integrity is most surely achieved through the illustrator’s command of the drawn line. (I think that I caused some confusion in the argument – both in the exhibition and in the book – by seeking to add the rather crude psychological rider: that drawing is also the most natural way of illustrating. We are all given to it, children and adults alike, whatever our competence, and to that extent the drawing of pictures – rather than the making of decorations or the slapping around of paint – answers natural expectations.)
Now it may be coincidental, but from the time that children’s books began to emerge as a definable commercial genre in the middle of the eighteenth century, English illustrators have shown themselves to possess a distinctive command of the drawn line. Undoubtedly the influence of Hogarth was paramount, and undoubtedly the Hogarthian style gained variety, flexibility, and sometimes a coarsening frenzy, through the popularity of caricature prints. The long-term effect though was the establishing of a fertile, non-academic – even amateur – tradition in illustration which was to be especially fruitful in the making of picture books. It was an hospitable tradition. It could include the passionate vision of Blake’s whole-page prints for Songs of Innocence and the levity of George Cruikshank’s Comic Alphabet. What it insisted on was the fluency of the illustrator’s pen or graver, needle or brush.
One of the reasons for this is my own penchant for trying to demonstrate points by making contrasts. I was partly impelled to set up Sing a Song for Sixpence because it seemed to me that we are all too easily seduced by the surface impressions of picture books and do not sufficiently consider the inner relationships of the text and the illustrations. I may appear to be labouring the obvious when writing about the English tradition of drawing, but alongside that tradition there have subsisted contrasting modes of illustration whose fuller discussion would have clarified the central argument. With modern work, for instance, how better to counter the Schwarmerei that greets each new offering from decorative artists like Errol Le Cain or clever-clever technicians like Anthony Browne, than by reasserting the fluid interaction of picture and text that is present in the less stunning, but altogether more coherent picture books within ‘the tradition’.
Clarifying the technical and stylistic shifts of this tradition was one of the purposes of Sing a Song for Sixpence. The exhibition attempted to show an enduring family likeness in, let us say, picture books etched by Rowlandson, or engraved on wood by the firm of Edmund Evans on behalf of Charles Bennett or Randolph Caldecott, or photographed for printing from the art-work of Leslie Brooke or Quentin Blake. Frustration was always at hand though, for the theme proved to be too large and too difficult to articulate within the confines of either the exhibition or the book.
The impossibility of pursuing these contrasts as fully as I would have liked was matched by what several critics saw as the crucial weakness of the exhibition: the impossibility of turning the pages of the books. For if ‘rhythmic progression’ or ‘fluid interaction’ mean anything at all they mean the flow of words and pictures through the books as a whole – and looking at the book as a whole is not something that can be contrived in glass-cases or within the compass of 112-page manuals. A plan did exist for overcoming this problem by having on display an open rack of modern picture books which everyone attending the exhibition – adults and children alike – could examine at their leisure. This however was defeated by Administrative Prudence. It seems that the Warders, upon whom the successful operation of the British Museum entirely depends, were unwilling to permit so radical a departure from convention as to have people reading books in a book-exhibition. The only compromise that could be reached was to provide visitors with a list of recommended books which could then be seen and bought in the Museum Shop. That list was a – highly selective – summary of ‘the Caldecott tradition’ as it manifests itself today, with entries ranging from Beatrix Potter’s Sly Old Cat to Charlotte Voake’s Over the Moon.
In books such as these can be seen the delight in picture-book art that prompted the whole enterprise – and fortunately one opportunity did present itself for me to clarify further the points I wished to make. At a lunch-time lecture in the Museum in January we were able to ‘turn the pages’ of a couple of examples to demonstrate the nature and virtues – and fun – of ‘the tradition’.
The first book I chose was the little-reckoned Caldecott Toy Book Come Lasses and Lads of 1881. The text, which is a ballad, is not an easy work to illustrate or to come to terms with as something to read to children. But the intelligence and artistry with which Caldecott parallels the May-Day celebrations of the song with a narrative line of his own, the way, for instance, that he characterises participants and creates from hints in the text the sad story of the fiddler – these are as good an example of the integrity of picture-book art as one could wish.
My second example was The Pirate Twins by William Nicholson (1929) – a companion-piece to Clever Bill and a book which it is shameful to find now out-of-print. Superficially it seems to have little to do with Randolph Caldecott but it is imbued with the same genius for the complete, harmonious integration of text and picture. This is seen partly in the dynamic way in which Nicholson paces the story through the pages (it is written in his own round-hand script), and the pacing is perfectly complemented by the flow of the images. For although Nicholson’s drawing (for offset lithography) is simpler and chunkier than Caldecott’s it has the same vibrancy of movement and pleasure in off-the-cuff narrative detail.
To the audience it may have seemed coincidental that both these examples included reference to dancing, but in terms of the exhibition and the larger thesis that was present behind it this was not so. For when Sendak talked of Caldecott’s `sense of music and dance’ he was adumbrating a motif that asserts itself again and again in the progress of the English picture book. From Hogarth, who used a dance-scene as an example in his Analysis of Beauty (1753), to Quentin Blake, whose Mr Magnolia dances his way from one end of a book to the other, English illustrators (and American illustrators in the English tradition) can almost be judged by their response to the challenge of the dance. For in the demands that it makes on their powers of drawing – Blake’s ‘bounding line’, Rowlandson’s ‘bouncing calligraphy’, Caldecott’s ‘art of leaving out’ – it symbolises the adequacy with which they can match the tune, the playfulness, the momentum of their subjects.
The Caldecott Tradition for Today’s Children
The following list has been compiled with the wholly practical aim of recommending some of the picture books in ‘the Caldecott tradition’ that are available in bookshops or libraries today. The titles have been selected and classified to show the tradition at work in different kinds of picture book.
Nursery Rhyme Collections
Nursery Rhyme Book
Quentin Blake, Cape, o/p; Picture Lions, 0 00 662461 8, £1.50 pbk
Gregory Griggs and other Nursery Rhyme People
Arnold Lobel, Hamish Hamilton, o/p
Rhymes Without Reason from Mother Goose
Wallace Tripp, Worlds Work, o/p
Over the Moon
Charlotte Voake, Walker, 0 7445 0337 X, £7.95
Single Nursery Rhyme
Each Peach Pear Plum
Alan Ahlberg, ill. Janet Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 28705 9, £5.95; Picture Lions, 0 0 661678 X, £1.75 pbk
A was an Apple Pie
Tracey Campbell Pearson, Bodley Head, 0 370 30771 2, £4.50
Sing a Song of Sixpence
Tracey Campbell Pearson, Bodley Head, 0 370 30862 X, £5.25
Hector Protector and As I Went over the Water
Maurice Sendak, Macmillan, 0 333 37148 8, £1.95 pbk
The Three Little Pigs
Erik Blegvad, Julia MacRae, o/p; Picture Lions, 0 00 661966 5, £1.75 pbk
The Great Big Enormous Turnip
Tolstoi, ill. Helen Oxenbury, Heinemann, 0 434 96680 0, £5.50; Piccolo, 0 330 23386 6, £1.25 pbk
The Little Red Hen
Margot Zemach, Viking Kestrel, o/p; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.567 9, £1.75 pbk
Comic Rhymes, etc
The Old Joke Book
Allan Ahlberg, ill. Janet Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 52273 2, £4.95; Picture Lions, o/p
Quentin Blake, Cape, 0 224 01612 1, £4.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 661879 0, £l95 pbk
Johnny Crow’s Garden
L. Leslie Brooke, Warne, 0 723 23429 9, £2.95
Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy
Lynley Dodd, Spindlewood, 0 907349 50 1, £4.25; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050 531 8, £1.95 pbk
Pat the Cat
Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, Picture Puffin, 0 14050 459 1, £1.75 pbk
This is the Bear
Sarah Hayes, ill. Helen Craig, Walker, 0 7445 0482 1, £2.95
Diana and her Rhinoceros
Edward Ardizzone, Magnet, 0 416 45260 4, £1.50 pbk
Johnny the Clockmaker
Edward Ardizzone, Oxford University Press, 0 19 272120 8, £1.75 pbk, o/s at present
Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain
Edward Ardizzone, Viking Kestrel, 0 7226 5801 X, £6.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050 175 4, £2.50 pbk
Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10004 6, £5.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050 350 1, £2.95 pbk
Mr Gumpy’s Outing
John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 61909 8, £5.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.254 8, £1.75 pbk
The Winter Bear
Ruth Craft, ill. Erik Blegvad, Collins, 0 00 195869 0, £4.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 660872 8, £1.75 pbk
The Big Green Book
Robert Graves, ill. Maurice Sendak, Puffin, 0 14 03.0955 1, £1.50 pbk
See Mouse Run
Sally Grindley, ill. Priscilla Lamont, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11567 1, £5.50
The Sly Old Cat
Beatrix Potter, Warne, 0 723 21420 4, £2.95
Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out
Mary Rayner. Macmillan, 0 333 193717, £5.95; Piccolo, 0 330 25549 5, £l .25 pbk
Charlotte Voake, Walker, 0 7445 0527 5, £2.95
John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat
Jenny Wagner, ill. Ron Brooks, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 80790 7, £6.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.306 4, £2.95 pbk
The Elephant and the Bad Baby
Elfrida Vipont, ill. Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01639 8, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.048 0, £1.75 pbk
Three Miniature ‘Collections’ of Randolph Caldecott’s picture books (each containing two of his titles) have recently been published by Warne (0 723 23432 9, 0 723 23433 7, 0 723 23434 5) at £2.95 each.
*Brian Alderson is Children’s Book Editor of The Times. His Sing a Song for Sixpence: the English Picture-Book Tradition and Randolph Caldecott is published by Cambridge University Press in paperback at £9.95 (0 521 33760 7) and in hardback at £25.00 (0 521 33179 X).