From Ladybirds to Wild Things . . . .
Eric Winter & Robert Lumley. I’m guessing you’ve likely never heard of them?
Like most 20th century kids, book illustrations were my first experience of art. I grew up in the UK. In a mid-century household where ‘Ladybird’ books infested the book shelves of my classroom and bedroom. They offered a safe gateway into the wider world and the biggest influence from these was by no small measure the illustrations inside them! But looking back I wonder why? Some of the illustrations were downright scary. All were of a high quality though. And more importantly I, like millions of kids, absolutely LOVED them!
But because of the way Ladybird sold their iconic books many members of ‘team Ladybird’ were never overtly credited. The books were promoted solely by their distinct and recognisable uniform pocket-sized texts. This came out of the frugality of the paper shortage during the war. A design that once set, was there to stay.
These books kicked around from the Post-war era until I happened upon them as a 70’s child (my parents also had the same texts). There were other staples too. Long established familiar illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice texts by John Tenniel and those written and Illustrated by Beatrix Potter (apparently happy to perform autopsies on bunnies in her pursuit of accuracy – or so I’ve heard).
But back to those Ladybird books. The ‘Well-Loved Tales’ are as familiar as the history, science, ‘How we live’ series. The likes of Peter and Jane certainly played their part in helping me to read and believe that a middle-class up-bringing was what it was all about. Yet I’m guessing as many of us recognise the pictures, how many people can say who created them? Yet these were highly skilled artists.
Like so many before them illustration seemed to diminish the work in its importance in the world. For a long time illustrating works was looked down on unofficially and somehow seen as ‘less’. So those beautiful works simply didn’t get the credit nor recognition they deserved beyond their young readers.
At the same time I was reading these books with their safely familiar middle class sensibilities, I was also discovering Roger Hargreaves of Mr Men Fame. His brightly coloured books were ALL about the illustrations for me. In all honesty that never changed. For me the pictures were able to communicate far more than the stories ever could! Bight bold splashes of colour!
At the same time for me there was also:
Maurice Sendak . .
Rebellion in Blasts of Colour and Energy
When ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was first published there were major concerns that it was simply too scary for children – reallly? And yet these colourful images have had such a joyful imprint on my mind, (fast forward a few decades and we have ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman the illustrations of which have caused many a debate).
Of course the most famous of illustrators for many has to be Quentin Blake. The energy I witnessed in every stroke of the pen across the paper – ahhhh balm for the artists soul. A literal rebellious streak of ink on surface! If ever character and image were match made in heaven this was it. Added to the fact that there was a deliberate disregard for a prescribe constrained neatness, meant each image felt authentic and not controlled by those of the establishment that had come before. Gone was a ‘polite’ representation of the world. Here was vitality, brightness and humour!
So What? I Hear You Say!
Well, without these beautiful images I would NEVER have had a true understanding of the power of art. There I sat as a 4 year old while the teacher held up a book where the sky was white and a single cloud in the sky was blue. She asked us why. Why had they drawn it this way? I’d like to say I had the answer but no. Instead one of the queitest souls in our class threw up his hand and explained that the blue ‘cloud’ was actually tiny patch of blue sky on a grey day.
And that was it. Right there.
That one small moment when I realised that art can speak to the viewer. That it can reach across ages as well as languages; go beyond words and yet tell a story. I was hooked. Even now as an adult I stare in wonder at the children’s section in those ever decreasing book shops and marvel at the genius splashed on every page. And yes I absolutely buy them for their Illustrations!
It saddens me that illustration stops at childhood. I’m not sure at what point or who decided but we seem to think that adults don’t need illustrations in their books. Yes – this opens the door to use our own imaginations but it’s such a missed opportunity in getting big people to read. And despite what you might have heard you can look at the pictures for clues – trust me I was a teacher once!
Art Over Illustration
Perhaps its also because of this that we move away from pictures in books to pictures on walls. Once we have our own home we choose how it looks. The space on the walls becomes our own autonomous domain. We start off with a print or two and then perhaps move to invest in a piece of ‘real’ art.
But there’s a danger here too.
In striving to have the ‘real’ thing we can also be influenced what others might think when they visit and see it on our walls. We start to be swayed.
Think back to pages torn out of pop magazines stuck up with blu-tak. We put aside our childhood texts with all those fabulous illustrations in favour of displaying something that keeps us being seen as ‘trendy’ by our peers and therefore ‘in’.
Of course it’s a rite of passage to fulfil the need to impress, have the latest look. We get confused by what we actually love rather than what others do. Afterall buying original art is a much bigger investment. Its typically there for the long-haul too so we want to get it ‘right’.
Interior design programs and magazines have much to answer for. How many of us have chosen an image because it suits the décor? Only to replace after a few years?
So the last thing we should be doing is investing in art that is ‘childish’ right? Illustrations should be consigned to the pages of books? ‘True’ art, ‘sophisticated’ art should adorn our walls?
Well no, not exactly. I firmly believe that the art we choose whether it be Abstract, Photorealistic or Naïve should be something we love. Something which speaks to us. If this is a poster reproduction of a page from a much loved Ladybird Tale then so be it!
Even better if it’s an original artwork, naïve in style, abundant in colour – well at least for me. I actually make the sort of art I’d love to have on my own walls. Not that as an artist you have to – I just happen to.
So is MY art illustrative?
In one sense – yes. Many of my paintings tell their own story. I find it easier to create a painting when I’m immersed in a narrative I’ve built up around it. Many of my artworks don’t depict figurative characters (though some do) but I still imagine them having a tale to tell.
I’m guessing this shines through as on more than one occasion I’ve had folks telling me that I should illustrate books and for a time I thought writing and illustrating was something I would like to try. Until that is, I attempted to begin many a book only to realise exactly how hard THAT is! Hats off to all you authors out there! I’ve not entirely given up on this and I do still have one or two tales floating round in my head. It’s the creative in me – I simply can’t help myself!
It’s almost as if the inanimate objects take on a life of their own. My little cottages by the seaside and along the harbour seem to lean and support each other. Thus reflecting how the people and the communities living in them are most likely to do. They give a sense of place but in addition a sense of the people and characters there too.
Describing myself as a Naïve landscape artist, I rarely produce an artwork that doesn’t portray the touch of mankind. In it somewhere there’s usually a lone building or many. That’s because I’m as interested in how people have shaped the land over millennia as much as how nature is still in control. But figures don’t need to appear to demonstrate this. A colourful home and garden will do.
Is one inferior to the other?
It was often suggested that illustration was the poor persons version of fine art but there’s been much to re-address this over the past couple of decades
Owning prints has been around for centuries as a means of making art accessible to all. But it is also the development of cheaper printing technology and development of pigments that has meant a real exposure for all kinds of art to the masses in the most recent decades.
Once children with a wealth of richly illustrated texts at their fingertips are now the middle aged homeowners of today. I’m claiming that its my generation who have seen the gloriousness that is illustrative art. My generation were perhaps the first to be exposed to all manner of different styles of artwork.
We were blasted with colour from all directions, including the penchant for 80’s neons among other things. We were one step on from our parents growing up with Pop Art.
We were the children of Athena (the shop not the goddess) and a little later IKEA. Where prints became all the rage. Now we’ve moved on to a point where we can invest in original pieces, the art world has opened its doors and become ever more accessible through a variety of social media platforms. We get constant streams of images that appeal to us and therefore can be selective still as to what we want to see.
This has also meant our experiences of growing up surrounded by image and colour on scale never before experienced translates to what we want to see in our homes.
A ‘Grown-ups’ Replacement for ‘Childish’ Illustration:
Naïve Art has and is very much playing a key role in this. It is the accessibility of the image but without the constraints of the old fashioned rules of what makes a ‘good’ painting. Stores with prints that once made owning art works popular, were the start of new trends to own art. They’ve been around along time!
This has now translated to the fact that the trend is now to ‘buck’ the trend. Though we know the famous flowers and sunsets of historic artistic figures (VanGogh, Picasso and Monet are great examples) and can value their paintings it’s also become a focus to find the next new artist. To get in there before others do.
Finding an artist and then owning their work – an original piece has become de regur but without the necessity for our visitors to instantly recognise who that artist is. It is enough to know that YOU like it so much so that you’ve invested in owning an original however big or small.
The rules? There are none!
Pictures That Tell A Story
Naïve Art by its very nature fits this attitude towards art. Rebellious disregard for rules of colour and perspective sit alongside recognisable albeit quirky, whimsical interpretations of places we all like to visit. Popular destinations made even more memorable by owning art based on that place. These special places can be revisited time and again by simply looking up to see them hanging on our walls in a rich array of vibrant colours.
As such pictures that tell a story have become sought after once more. Whatever their style if a painting provokes a conversation as its hanging on a wall, its done its job. Be it of a place, a person, a colour that conjures a memory, all have their worth.
I can therefore understand the popularity of the last decade, in Railway poster art. It has its roots in nostalgia of by-gone days. Its images and typeface encapsulating away days in a familiar landscape. It has a purely illustrative quality and yet its sophisticated at the same time. Its subliminal messages are many. Relating to wider travel, staycations, valuing the past and nostalgia for by-gone days being among them.
They speak to us in an accessible and familiar voice as does much of the art that I see around the homes of family and friends. My home is no exception.
Years ago we looked at albums and CD collections to try and understand a person. (I could do a whole blog about the cover works of some of these albums and their impacts but I’ll leave that for another time). Today as these have moved to online digital platforms one of the few clues left around a house by the owner is what artwork they have on display.
We may not be fully aware of it but as we observe the works we’re likely asking ourselves questions about the person. As well as the ‘why’ did they choose this artwork – which is likely to be among the first – we’re likely to ask: Is this where they’ve travelled to/ want to travel to? Is this what that place truly looks like? What magic is held in that place? That and a hundred more questions.
Which brings us back full circle to the art we first experienced in those illustrated texts that likely provoked the same questions in our minds.
For years I had a print of a painting by Annora Spence ‘Red Bus’ hanging on my wall. It’s style is very child-like, very ‘naïve’ but its impact has been to make me smile every single time I look at it. In that lies its sophistication. I love it still. Though sadly have struggled to find a wall space for it since moving home – I can’t part with it. It’s the same for many pieces I own. I know with a lottery win some folks would buy a new home – I’d have to invest in a gallery space! I can re-cycle just about anything but NOT art!
That’s what I need in my home. Art that in its purest simplest form makes me smile like the illustrations in those books that I still sit and read and admire from time to time.