Characters from children’s books often take on legendary status in the popular imagination. Peter Pan inspired his own pathological syndrome (and maybe R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”); Willy Wonka led to a real-world candy company; and hundreds of wannabe Hobbits live in commercially manufactured Hobbit holes in Shire-like lands.
“Picture This,” a new exhibition at the British Library, presents a canon of illustrations from famous storybooks, from Paddington Bear to The Borrowers to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Sometimes even more than the written stories, it’s the detail and enchantment of the illustrations that transport children into these fantasy worlds. But are ingeniously illustrated kids’ books in danger of extinction in this Kindle-fied time? Curator Matthew Eve tells Co.Design, “Like anything else, children’s books come in and out of fashion and popularity. But there will always be a place for them in children’s lives if teachers, parents, and families keep them as firm family favorites to be cherished and (cerebrally) enjoyed.”
The exhibition grew up over many years. “The initial ideas stemmed from my childhood correspondence with children’s writers and illustrators, and my collection of illustrators’ drawings (see Paddington Bear!),” says Eve.
Even putting nostalgia aside, the detail and beauty in these artworks are stunning. Andrew Davidson’s stark, wood-engraved illustration for The Iron Man by Ted Hughes is hip enough to be a college dorm poster. Quentin Blake’s scrawly line drawings burst with energy and humor. Eve says a favorite of his is A Bear Called Paddington, illustrated by Peggy Fortnum in “unusual, sketchy line drawings, which she apparently drew straight onto tracing paper without any roughs or planning.” He also praises Angela Barrett’s “beautifully poised composition in muted colors” for The Secret Garden.
Strangely enough, Eve points out that many of the exhibited illustrators are unmarried and childless, and says, “Some of them don’t even like kids.” We’ll leave that for someone else to psychoanalyze and simply enjoy the fantasy worlds they’ve created.