Magazine article The Spectator

A Power to Enthral

Magazine article The Spectator

A Power to Enthral

Article excerpt

The illustrations in children's books play a crucial role in expanding the imaginative horizons of the reader and fixing the story in the memory.

The very best book illustration is so inextricably linked to the text that it is hard to think of one without the other. Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda stories, quite apart from being published in alluringly small, pocketable volumes, are defined by Edward Ardizzone's dashingly vivid drawings, as are the Chronicles of Narnia by Pauline Baynes's delicate and precise depictions of Mr Tumnus the faun, the valiant Prince Caspian and Jadis, the vicious, TurkishDelight-bearing White Witch, while Roald Dahl's anarchic world is brilliantly matched by Quentin Blake and his raggedy, effervescent creations.

Long before any of the above, Andrew Lang's collections of fairy tales would state temptingly on the title page that they contained 'eight colour plates and numerous illustrations by H.J. Ford'. Then a list of those illustrations, picking out a particular phrase or key moment, would make one long to find out what could possibly be happening to someone who said 'Quick, prince, quick! The time is flying, comb me at once!' or 'I accept your challenge. Mount, and follow me. I am Zoulvisia.' In my copy of The Olive Fairy Book, some of the drawings have been carefully and beautifully coloured in by a previous owner. The same is true of my mother's old copies of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up, which then acquired further, less successful, daubings by my sister and myself.

For quite a considerable period of my childhood I attempted to go about with my eyes fixed wide open, hoping that passing adults would remark upon my unblinking gaze, something which people seemed to admire inordinately in the staunchly plucky Dick Fauconbois (aka the Stormy Petrel), hero of the books by Violet Needham, also inherited from my mother. As much as the inspirational descriptions, it was the drawings by Joyce Bruce that so fired my imitative little soul. There stood Dick, looking into an heroic middle-distance, wearing the most fascinating clothes -- a sort of Ruritanian/ Bavarian mix -- steadfast and courageous however desperate the circumstances.

The pictures in my edition of E. Nesbit's The Five Children and It are uncredited, but there's a memorable drawing of the brilliantly funny moment when the children unwisely wish that they might become 'as beautiful as the day'. They are transformed from four rather hot and grubby specimens into a contemporary idea of fashionable pulchritude, complete with 'enormous blue eyes and a cloud of russet hair' for Jane and long golden curls for Cyril. They have a miserable time, with neither luncheon nor tea (an absence they mind greatly), as their nearest and dearest fail to recognise them, refusing them entry to their own home. Increasingly hungry and fed up, whenever they look at each other their woes are increased by the realisation that 'their faces were so radiantly beautiful as to be quite irritating to look at'.

Beyond all others, the drawings that had the most power and that entirely enthralled me were by Charles Keeping. It was in books by Rosemary Sutcliff that I first encountered his work, but where I was most gripped, both by text and illustrations, was in the two collections of Greek myths co-written by Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield, The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Arrow. …

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