The Best of British Illustration is unveiled

We are used to exhibitions of fine art but a gallery filled with illustrations is a dazzling sight to see. Graphic design is just as impressive, as demanding, as inventive and skilled as fine art and yet some how it doesn’t command quite the same respect. However, all this changes now. Images 33: The Best of British Illustration 2009 is new touring exhibition which has just been opened at the University Campus Suffolk in the Waterfront gallery.

The exhibition celebrates the health and diversity of British contemporary illustration but it also deals with the issues of perception. It tackles head on the false notion that somehow fine art is somehow weightier, more meaningful, more important – more artistic.

A glance around the gallery immediately puts the lie to this. Illustration is just as skilled, just as imaginative. Both art forms are about communication and both do it in different ways. Fine art could be described as more interpretative whereas illustration and graphic design is more direct. It could be argued that illustration is also wittier and less po-faced but there are too many exceptions to make that a hard-and-fast rule.

Seeing images lifted from a magazine page to a properly framed and mounted print in an exhibition does change its status in a bizarre way. It legitimises the work in a way that shouldn’t matter. The work is clever and creative whether it is in a magazine, on a poster hoarding, or adorning a book jacket or CD cover. It is a pity it has to be placed in a frame to be taken seriously.

For senior lecturer Russell Walker, the exhibition is the fruition of two years, toiling away behind the scenes, to get this important exhibition out of London, so it can inspire students at what used to be called the Ipswich Art School.

He said: “This is an annual exhibition. Thirty-odd years ago it was decided that there was so much talent in the country that it should be acknowledged and celebrated with an exhibition which could inspire the next generation of young artists and designers.

“That was the genesis of the idea. The Association of Illustrators was born and the idea took off that we could gather together, each year, the best examples of contemporary illustration and put it out in a journal and an exhibition.”

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For Russell, the fact that this year’s exhibition has come to Ipswich has a certain sweetness to it because he was successful in getting one of his illustrations into the final selection. “I have to say it was a happy coincidence that my work made into the final line-up. When I started pushing for the exhibition to come here I had no idea that my work would make it into the final show. Still it is good for the students to see that their lecturer practices what he preaches.”

Chrissie Harrington, head of the school of arts and humanities at the university, said that it was important that leading exhibitions like this came to Ipswich and that leading members of staff were seen to be among the best of their profession. “Also it’s very good for the students to see first class exhibition which can inspire and we want the students to up their expectations so they can achieve the very best. It’s wonderful that it can also engage with the community at large.

“Also as part of the exploration we are encouraging students to explore more. To try out new ideas, new techniques, to experiment and have permission to fail. It’s important that they own their mistakes and learn from them. We want them to feel free to fail without the fear of being judged or having it held against them. It’s about being given permission to play. We want them to be inspired to try new things. Some will work, others won’t, that’s how we learn.”

Russell said that there were a number of different categories for which illustrators could enter work for consideration. “There’s advertising, editorial, children’s books and while students can submit work but it is predominately professionals who enter work for the exhibition.”

He said that the work is then judged by a highly regarded panel. This year’s judging panel consisted of: Margaret Hope – Children’s Art Director at publishers Random House, Stuart Outhwaite – Art Director of Mother, Illustrator Jason Ford, Malcolm Garrett – Creative Director at AIG, Choi Liu – Art Buyer M&C Saatchi, Gavin Morris – Designer at Faber & Faber and Maggie Murphy – Art Director of the Guardian Weekend Magazine.

“What makes this exhibition very desirable is that it is made up of work submitted by professionals, judged by professionals, so it is quite stringently examined, and there is the desire to keep the standard high because British illustration enjoys a reputation for being the best in the world and we want to keep it that way. The exhibition is called The Best of British... but in actual fact this is the best in the world...”

He said that as much of the world looked to the UK for creative trends in music, the same was true for illustration. “We have a legacy that goes back centuries to Rowlandson, Cruikshank and Beardsley. This helps keep the bar high. Educationally that’s fantastic because I am trying to teach illustration and graphics and although I can take students to London, how much better that the university hosts an exhibition that brings the best that the world of illustration can offer right to their doorstep.”

He said that it was not only the course that helped persuade the Association of Illustrators to bring the Image 33 show to Ipswich but the striking university building and gallery space which they agreed would show off the pictures to their best advantage.

“I looked at my files the other day and it has taken two years to go from: ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if...’ to actually having the show here, on display, at the university. For the students, and from the point of view of the general visitor, because it is open to the public, you can go round the exhibition and look at the prints and work out why these pictures work.

“Again it is very much like music. What is going on? Why do certain records go into the top ten? Why have certain illustrations made it into this best of the best exhibition? If fine art is Beethoven and Stravinsky then illustration is a little bit more rock’n’roll, a little bit more dangerous but if we take the music analogy to its fullest extent, within the show we have country and western, we have jazz and we have punk rock – as well everything inbetween.

“We have three names in this exhibition which will go down in the pantheon of great British illustration. We have Bill Sanderson, he used to do lots of Radio Times covers, then there’s Ian Pollock, he’s seriously part of the heritage of English illustration and then there’s Brian Grimwood, he was one of the founders of the Association when it first came together in the early 1970s. He is a legend in the profession. You walk into any off-licence and look at the Johnny Walker logo, you are looking at his work. It’s an iconic piece of illustration. That’s the strength of the exhibition and the association, we have the new young artists but we also have the older, more experienced hands.”

Other notable submissions for this year’s exhibition include Daniel Pudles’ dramatic editorial image Latitude, Leonard And The Mob Mind which was produced for the New Statesman’s Diary Section, also, Nishant Choksi’s Winter Roaming, part of Vodafone’s widespread Global airports campaign, while Artbombers are bringing comedy back to the seaside with their Seagull series commissioned for the Paramount Comedy Channel while Poly Bernatene’s The Tickle Tree, is a beautifully illustrated picture book for Meadowside Children’s Books.

Russell said that he was very much in favour of turning visitors loose and letting them discover the work for themselves. “It’s all good. Let the people discover the work for themselves. What do they connect to? What speaks to them.”

He said as far as his students were concerned he has asked them to write a critical review of the exhibition so they can start to understand the mechanics of illustration... “so when they start making their own work they can understand the questions they should be asking: ‘What am I trying to achieve here? How busy do I make it? How many colours do I throw in there? Do I use humour or do I have to be serious? All valid questions. Then you have to think about context. What is it being used for? Is it advertising or is it editorial? Each have their own demands, their own constraints and freedoms.”

He said that one of the joys for him was seeing lots of drawing on display. “There’s very little computer work in any the work. A lot of it is traditional draughtsmanship and its great to see it applied to such a variety of work.”

Image 33: The Best of British Illustration runs until March 26 at the UCS Waterfront building. It is open seven days a week from 9am to 6pm. Admission is free and all work is for sale.