Tucked away in a corner of the British Library, amidst the heavy classics and ancient manuscripts, is a delicate exhibition celebrating ten iconic children’s stories. Each has been illustrated and re-illustrated for different generation – this exhibition explores how the story of these stories can be told through their pictures.
It seems paradoxical somehow that adults are allowed to impart their prejudices and preconceptions onto books which, really, ought to have no agenda but to delight. Add to this the fact that the ten classics explored in this exhibition are probably being increasingly forsaken by modern children for something faster-paced, and seeing them on display behind glass could easily feel as though the adults are claiming them – placing them on the top shelf away from sticky fingers.
It is a testament to the exhibition then, that it manages to turn all of these paradoxes into something beautiful and sharply analytical, yet simple enough to avoid feeling that the British Library have allowed adults into Neverland. It is not just a celebration of illustrations as artwork – it is an analysis of the integral nature of illustration to children’s storytelling, purposefully revealing as much about the books the illustrations feature in as it does about the nature and creation of the images themselves.
In a relatively small space, the exhibition showcases a huge range of illustrative techniques, from Ian Beck’s delicate watercolours for Peter Pan to the charming spontenaity of Lauren Child’s scrapbooking (because she’s ‘not very good at making decisions’) for her edition of The Secret Garden. The display on Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant contrasts Laura Carlin’s ‘amorphus paper cut-out colossus’ with Andrew Davidson’s woodcuts, equally threatening in their human realism – thus showing the way each interpretation draws out a different side of the Giant’s character.
Video interviews with the artists also provide an insight into their differing work patterns and cultural influences. David Roberts speaks of how his background in fashion design influenced his illustrations for The Wind in the Willows, and the way in which he tried to incorporate contemporary art and pattern into his design for the book. The fact that the story itself has no obvious connection to art deco is an example on the way that illustrations can bring to light aspects of a text and its cultural background which we didn’t know were there.
This exhibition at the BL acknowledges illustrators as artists, who breathe life into characters so familiar to us. It also celebrates the fact that each time these texts are illustrated it marks a rejuvenation for a modern audience, rendering these classics timeless in a very real sense – enabling them to be constantly reinvented and reshaped as something new.