Picture perfect way to bring our childhood stories alive

Percy The Park Keeper, illustration for Percy and the Four Feathers by Nicj Butterworth

Percy The Park Keeper, illustration for Percy and the Four Feathers by Nicj Butterworth - Credit: Archant

Talk about children’s book illustrations and you could be forgiven for presuming that it’s an artform dedicated to turning cute animals into anthropomorphic 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.

War Boy by Michael Foreman

War Boy by Michael Foreman - Credit: Archant

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, children going on a bear hunt, the War Boy and images from Beowulf are just some of the scenes and characters featured in the exhibition.

Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone at work in their studio at Badingham

Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone at work in their studio at Badingham - Credit: Archant

As soon as you see the vast range of work and the incredible skills on display in this startling exhibition you realise that perhaps children’s book illustrations are frequently under-estimated.

Children's Alphabet by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Children's Alphabet by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone - Credit: Archant

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.

Sleeping Beauty by Margery Gill

Sleeping Beauty by Margery Gill - Credit: Archant

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 Ardizonne, Nick Butterworth, Helen Oxenbury, Kathleen Hale, Michael Foreman, Margaret Tempest along with the 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, pictured right, 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.

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“When I started researching the exhibition 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.”

She said that the exhibition is displaying 300 works which are displayed in a number of small galleries which come off the main atrium. The visitor will be greeted by a number of over-sized books which will form part of an introduction to the work on show.

Emma said that the genesis of the exhibition came about when the museum service were given the archive of prolific artists The Johnstone twins, daughters of the artist Doris Zinkeisen, who lived at Badingham, near Framlingham.

“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 as well as 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 green coloured 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 telling 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 much more middle-class and more fairytale and fable-based while the more contemporary works focus much more on the world as we know it.

Helen Oxenbury’s We Are Going On A Bear Hunt features a very recognisable modern family, negotiating obstacles that you could encounter on any trip to the coast or into the countryside.

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.

“I knew that Janet and Anne would form a major part of the exhibition but I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be great to get some of our other local artists involved?’ and I am thrilled that they have been so enthusiastic about it and have supplied so much great work for us to choose from.”

She said that framing the illustrations and hanging them in a gallery gave these highly imaginative works extra wow factor. “They are fantastic works of art in their own right and they are executed with some skill and imagination. We have all sorts of work here from pencil drawings to pen and ink, watercolours, acrylics, pencil work, pastels and woodcut printing. There are several modern works which have been created on computer and then printed out – so we span a range of different disciplines and different eras.”

She said that she was delighted to have some work from classic children’s illustrator Edward Ardizzone, who lived at Yoxford, which had been loaned by Ipswich School. “And we are delighted also to have Helen Oxenbury’s original artwork for We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and lots of illustrations from Michael Foreman in which he transformed his native Pakefield, near Lowestoft, into a wartime landscape and seascape.”

Although the artists have national reputations Emma said that they were very unassuming when they were originally approached to part in the exhibition. “Several of them said: ‘Are you sure you want to frame this and hang it on the wall in a gallery?’ When we convinced them we really did value their work, then they really raided their archive for their favourite pieces. A couple even did new pieces especially for the exhibition.

“Also they are not simple drawings. There’s a lot of thought and detail goes into good children illustration. There’s a lot of imagination. Children are very sharp. They are very keen observers. So the more you put into a picture the more they will come back to it and the more they will see.”

She said that some of her favourites included James Mayhew’s The Cornfield (after Constable) and Michael Foreman’s early pen and ink illustrations of Pakefield After the War Was Over: The Cliff Path and War Boy: Poppies Amongst the Ruins which mixes colour with black and white.

“Margery Gill, who did The Little Princess, did highly detailed pen and ink drawings. She did amazing work and we can only show a fraction of it. We have got something for everyone, 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.”

The exhibition is organised as if each gallery was a chapter of a book. It opens with Once Upon A Time, which provides an introduction to the work of the artists on show and to the characters.

“Each gallery contains work from a number of artists. I didn’t want to have one space dedicated to a single artist. I wanted to mix them all up, so visitors could enjoy a wide variety of work and compare and contrast. I think this way you really get a sense of the breadth of the work that has been created in Suffolk over the years.

“After the introduction you then get chapters like conflict, adversity and then resilience, before ending up with Happily Ever After. What’s really nice is the fact we have got space to show some of the sketchbooks and preparatory drawings taken from the Johnstone twins archive so we can see how they developed their finished work.”

The exhibition Once Upon A Time runs until May 4.