Once upon a time in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 14:00 01 April 2014 | UPDATED: 14:00 01 April 2014
Children’s illustrations create a sense of wonder with each turn of the page. Andrew Clarke takes a look at a new exhibition which celebrates the work of Suffolk’s great illustrative artists
Talk about children’s book illustrations and you could be forgiven for imagining an artform dedicated to turning cute animals into anthropo-morphic storytellers. But, a new exhibition at the Ipswich Art School Gallery aims to erase that stereotype and illustrate just how diverse and imaginative children’s artwork has been during the last 50 years.
Not only do these images define childhood for most of us, they are also exceptional pieces of art. Percy the Park Keeper, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, the War Boy and images from Beowulf are just some of the scenes and characters featured in the exhibition.
As soon as you see the vast range of work and the incredible skills on display in this startling exhibition you realise that children’s books are more complex and emotionally profound than many people give them credit for. These are the volumes which have the ability to turn youngsters into life-long readers.
Walking round the exhibition I had moments of deja vu as I came face-to-face with images from my own childhood.
Among the artists on show are Edward Ardizzone, Nick Butterworth, Helen Oxenbury, Kathleen Hale, Michael Foreman and Margaret Tempest, along with twins Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone who illustrated the Bill and Ben stories and Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians.
The exhibition has been pulled together by art curator Emma Roodhouse, who wanted to celebrate not only the best in imaginative children’s book illustration but also wanted to highlight the fact that for many artists Suffolk was home.
“When I started researching the exhibition, I discovered that not only did these nationally celebrated artists live in Suffolk but many of them were trained here at the art school. So there is a wonderful symmetry to the exhibition.”
Emma said that the exhibition, which comprises 300 works, came about when the museum service was given the archive of prolific artists The Johnstone twins, who lived at Badingham.
“I wanted to stage an exhibition of their work. They illustrated books by Dodie Smith, JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Charles Kingsley’s Waterbabies as well as fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and popular favourites like Andy Pandy and The Flowerpot Men. We have got a wide spread of their work from sketches and working drawings, where you can see them developing ideas, to the finished paintings.
“The amazing thing about Janet and Anne is that they worked as a pair. One would do some aspect of the drawings, the face and the hands, then pass it to her sister who would add the clothes and any animals in the background.”
On one beautiful illustration of a tree ogre you can see that the twins have been playing a word game on the side of the page. “These little details allow the artists to come through as real people.”
The exhibition also functions as a piece of social history, revealing in children’s literature how the world has changed and society’s attitude to children has changed.
Earlier books from the 1930s and 40s are more middle-class and more fairytale and fable-based while the contemporary works focus more on the world as we know it.
Helen Oxenbury’s We Are Going On A Bear Hunt features a very recognisable modern family, on a trip to the countryside, while Michael Foreman’s War Boy and War Game provides youngsters with a glimpse of war as seen through the eyes of someone their own age.
“We have got something for everyone,” said Emma. “We have Edward Ardizonne’s illustrations for The Dragon and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and go right up to date with Nick Butterworth’s Q-Pootle 5 which is currently showing on C-Beebies.”
Once Upon A Time runs until May 4.