Brian Alderson is saying goodbye to his books as he donates his remarkable collection to Seven Stories. Here he bids farewell to two little treasures.
I bought these little treasures in February 1962 as my collecting activities were taking off. They came from a North London book dealer from whose catalogues I had previously bought interesting books but I have forgotten his name and I never saw another catalogue after this.
The Jan Lewitt and George Him whose books this dealer had come by had something of a growing fame, as Lewitt-Him, among the advertisers of the thirties, working from their office in Warsaw and their illustrations for the three rhymes by Julian Tuwim were a departure for them. They must have been aware of the writing on the wall at the Polish/German border and in 1938 they moved their business to London, setting in train a Polish printing of what was to be the English edition of Lokomotywa. Its imprint from the Minerva Publishing Co. of 36 Great Russell Street seems not to appear in the British Book Trade Index and may have been an ‘outside office’ of Faber & Faber. As advertising designers, Lewitt-Him were feted by Lund Humphries at this time too with an exhibition that included many of their takes on pharmaceutical products and also twelve original drawings from Locomotive.
So far as the text of that book is concerned, I have no idea how it reads in Polish, but the English adaptation consists of first an off-the-cuff jog-trot version of a cross-country train trip with a mixed bag of passengers, second the traditional tale of pulling up the turnip, and third an imagined conversation of the birds of the air via the comparatively new medium of radio. What was so striking was the kaleidoscope of layout, design and brilliant colour which brought to Britain a graphic originality native to the designers of Eastern Europe. Indeed we had to wait for Mabel George to carry Brian Wildsmith’s work to the Brűder Rosenbaum in Vienna in 1960 to find its like.
- Tuwim was to have a curious afterlife after the war. His texts in Polish and German were reissued with colour illustrations by the Polish artist Jan Lenica who clearly knew of the work of his predecessors now in the wicked West. Later his work was reproduced in France and in 1970 the first story was published in London as The Train by Messrs Macdonald.
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Our London dealer was not done with Lewitt-Him and those two now rare books. As children’s books editor at Country Life, Noel Carrington had already shown great interest in graphic work from the east and it is unsurprising to find in 1939 him taking up with a story both written and illustrated by the couple: The Football’s Revolt. It is an entertaining farce where a football, fed up with being kicked in the air refuses to come down (could Carrington have had a hand in the writing?). The folio format gives further opportunity to the artists’ versatility which was to be a forerunner of the experimentation later in the forties in the picture books of such as Peter Lunn – also of European origin. (In 1944 an almost exact replica [probably unused sheets?] came out from the Sylvan Press and Nicholson & Watson.)
During the War there were two further picture books where the text was by Jan Lewitt’s wife, Alida but these were disappointing both as to narrative and unexciting illustration: Five Silly Cats from Faber (1943) and Blue Peter, an apparent late arrival from the Minerva company (1944). Before those, however, a war-time best-seller materialized when Faber brought the boys together with Diana Ross for The Little Red Engine Gets a Name (1942). She was a gifted storyteller (is anything of hers still in print?) and just as all the whistling and puffing noises make the engine’s journey, carrying the King to London a good thing to read aloud so the narrative illustrations in black and white and colour bring a more direct accompaniment than occurred in the earlier colour books. It was the start of a successful series in which the foundation style of Lewitt-Him was brilliantly replicated by Leslie Wood.
Brian Alderson is a long-time and much-valued contributor to Books for Keeps, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His most recent book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
Juljan Tuwim Lokomotywa: Rzepka (Wedlug Starej Bajeczki): Ptasie Radio. Ilustrowali Levitt I Him. Warszawa: J.Przeworskiego, 1938. 180x360mm. pp. Full-page and in-text colour lithographs throughout. Paper overboard with colour title illus. to front, full colour endpaper drawings repeated front and back. Original transparent wrapper. Provenance: Presentation inscription on p. from the illustrators to Reginald Murton [?]
Julian Tuwim Locomotive: The Turnip: The Birds’ Broadcast. Adapted from the Polish by Bernard J. Gutteridge and William J.Peace. Drawings by Lewitt and Him. Binding as above but with dust jacket as above with a drawing to rear. London: Minerva Publishing Co. Ltd. 36 Great Russell Street, W.C.n.d. . Printed in Poland.
Correction: The note on Gollancz’s Junior Week-End Book (BfK 251) was made (as noted) from a reprint, lacking a title-page. The (wrongly-filed) first edition has now turned up – a smarter job – and confirms J.R. Evans as the book’s editor.