Exploring children’s illustrator Edward Ardizzone’s Suffolk roots

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant

Iconic artist and illustrator Edward Ardizzone is undergoing something of a revival and critical re-assessment at the moment. A new book detailing his eventful life and career has just been published and the London gallery House of Illustration is currently staging his first solo exhibition and major retrospective in 40 years.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant

Author and exhibition co-curator Alan Powers briefly met Ardizzone at Orford Quay during the summer of 1970 when they were both holidaying in the area. Ardizzone knew Suffolk well having lived in Ipswich during his formative years, living first in Corder Road and then Gainsborough Road. He was a pupil at Ipswich School before being sent to Clayesmore School, a boarding school in Wokingham.

During his seven years at Ipswich School, from 1905 to 1912, he made frequent excursions down to Ipswich Docks, which was then a thriving commercial port, and he started to make drawings of the activity he saw there, work which inspired illustrations later in his career.

The archive at Ipswich School holds some original artworks by Ardizzone and an extensive collection of books, magazines and other printed material that Ardizzone produced over a 50-year career.

Ardizzone’s reputation as one of the nation’s most distinctive artists remains undimmed by the passing of the years. He illustrated a wealth of children’s books including the classic Stig of the Dump, Nurse Matilda and the Tim series of books, which he also wrote, as well as creating artwork for Punch, The Strand magazine and the Radio Times, film posters for the Ealing Comedies and ad campaigns for Guinness.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant


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Speaking before his appearance at the Way With Words literary festival in Southwold, Ardizzone biographer Alan Powers says that one of the reasons why he was so prolific was the fact that he was a workaholic. “He was always drawing. He always maintained that he only worked set office hours 9am to 6pm. At 6pm he would get down from his drawing board and join his family for the evening – but, what everyone who knew him says is that he sat there, with a drawing book in his hand, and he would spend the evening sketching away. Now, much of that work may have been for fun, or at least not for commission, but he was still drawing and he was undoubtedly putting down ideas which he would return to later on.”

He says that he has always loved Ardizzone’s work, and became aware that a major retrospective was being planned and this hastened his desire to get his book finished, so that they would appear together. “Since then I have learned that there is going to be another exhibition dedicated to Ardizzone which is being staged early next year at the Heath Robinson Museum, so he’s very much in the news again and it makes the book very timely.”

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Alan says that meeting Ardizzone as a 15-year-old lad helped give him a sense of the man’s personality and helped him get inside his head as he poured through a mountain of letters, diary entries and various writings. “I think I got an idea of who Edward Ardizzone was. He had a lovely sense of the surreal and a wonderful dark, sardonic sense of humour, which came through in his work. He was very helpful because he left me loads of clues and various bits of writing which dealt with his views on his work and he wrote quite extensively about illustration generally and how these things were reflected in his own work.

“He was quite modest too. He always said: ‘This is what I think, you may disagree, but this is my view on such and such,’ he was never dictatorial but he was firm in his views.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant

“He was quite conservative in his approach, he never challenged people with his work, which was quite warm and welcoming, which is why I think he was so successful. Also, he was a great collaborator with the text. I tend to think of him as having the same relationship with the story as a conductor had with an orchestra and a piece of music. It was all about the interpretation and I think he was always a very sympathetic collaborator and interpreter. He always got the feel of what the author was after.

“He had a particularly telling anecdote about the time he was illustrating Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers in the 1950s. There’s a rather oily character in the novel called Obadiah Slope and the publisher felt that Ardizzone had made him look too attractive but Ardizzone stood firm because, as he explained, ‘he drew him the way that Trollope had described him in the book’. Although he did admit, he couldn’t find a way to show that he had sweaty palms.”

Today there is a great debate about where the line is drawn between fine art, graphic art and illustration and he was aware that frequently his work crossed the barrier which embraced all three.

“I think he was very aware of this division because he writes at one point that people just regard him as an illustrator and he comes back saying that there are a lot of fine artists who are just illustrators dressed up. This was quite a big thing for him. Illustration and the ability to draw was everything. It’s the foundation of all art and he said that illustrators are born and the thing is to find out whether you are one or not.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant

“This was important because being a teacher, he needed to be able to identify those youngsters who had it and those who didn’t. He was an instructor in graphic design at the Camberwell School of Art and a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art. He maintained that you could identify an illustrator from the fact that he could draw a scene from his imagination, whereas a fine artist would need to draw the same scene from life.

“He often said when he was working, he would imagine he was sitting in the front row of the stalls of the theatre, the curtain would go up and he would draw what he imagined he saw. He enjoyed creating characters in situations. He was very good at capturing posture and body language.”

Ardizzone developed his colourful signature style very quickly so by the time the Second World War came along, it was possible to identify Ardizzone’s work from the way it looked. “If there was anything that was going to change the way he worked then it would have been his war work and yet they are still recognisably him. Towards the end of the war he had expanded his range enormously and he was working on a really large scale. He became rather good at filling areas with a lot of detail and then getting the empty spaces to speak. In many ways, he was working much more like a painter.”

After the war he started working on film posters and advertising campaigns. He produced film posters for Ealing film studios and elaborate promotional press books which were handed out to film critics. “They were very lucky to get someone as good and distinctive as Ardizzone to do their advertising. The press book for Nicholas Nickleby is especially lavish with colour printing all the way through but the peculiarity of it is that Ardizzone clearly hadn’t had an opportunity to see the film because none of the characters look like the actors but it is a very good illustration of the Charles Dickens novel.”

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original
Edward Ardizzone prints and books.

Ipswich School has an incredible archive of original Edward Ardizzone prints and books. - Credit: Archant

After the war Ardizzone came into his own. He had a thriving pre-war career but after the war he had experience and a greater skill-set and his work moved up another gear and he became what we would now call a national treasure. He began writing books as well as illustrating them and many of the stories had an autobiographical quality to them.

“I think he regarded writing stories as the logical next step. They also gave children a glimpse into the real world. They explored what father did when he disappeared out of the house every morning. He also let them know that not everything was straightforward, that there would be hurdles to overcome. Drawing from his own life, he also suggested that children could have a difficult relationship with their parents. But, the idea is that if you were resourceful, if you stuck to your guns, then you would win in the end.

“Ardizzone had a difficult relationship with his own father who wanted him to carry on his career as an office clerk, which Ardizzone hated. He thought earning money in an office was reliable, honest work and Edward could draw and paint as a hobby. In 1926, his father decided to give his children £500 each to set up their own business and it was at that point that Ardizzone said: ‘Right, I’m going to be an artist’ much to his father’s horror. He took himself off to art school and then quickly established himself providing illustrations for The Strand Magazine, Punch, the Radio Times and a wide range of books.

“I think it was the diversity of his work that makes him so interesting and something that comes across in the House of Illustration exhibition. He was always working and the work was always distinctive. You can’t really ask for more.”

Ardizzone: A Retrospective, the House of Illustration exhibition, runs at Kings Cross until January 22, 2017.

We are grateful to Melissa Joralemon from the Ipswich School archive who sourced the illustrations for this feature.

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