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Picture this…
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Picture this…

For a child, the pleasure of picking up a good book lies not just in the reading of it, but in the illustrations that speak of what the characters look like and bring to life the worlds in which they exist. These are the drawings that made the young reader appreciate the gruesome attributes of the villains and revere the heroes; the rough sketches that added to the joy of finding out what happened next.

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Original artwork from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. Published by Faber and Faber, 1985. Image ©Andrew Davidson, 1985

The artists behind these pictures – and they are artists, despite inevitable snobbery – are all too often under-appreciated, their gift for capturing the imaginary overlooked.  The British Library’s newly opened exhibition, which highlights how 10 key children’s books have been translated in to pictures, challenges this. Focusing on books published since 1900, from JM Barrie’s adventure story Peter Pan to Ted Hughes’s science fiction tale The Iron Man, it provides an intriguing look at how artists have differed in their interpretations over time.

It’s a small but detailed exhibition, beautifully laid out, with original sketches and copies of first edition drawings interspersed with video clips of interviews with illustrators and the Paddington Bear author Michael Bond. Covering books including The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows and The Borrowers, it showcases work by Quentin Blake, Lauren Child and Michael Foreman, as well as a host of less familiar names.

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Series of Paddington Bear illustrations, printed. Image © Peggy Fortnum

The exhibition takes you through Peggy Fortnum’s early sketches for Paddington Bear – apparently based on drawings of a Malayan Sun Bear in London Zoo – to later images in which, like many of the more modern incarnations of characters featured in this display, Paddington appears rather more cartoonish and jovial.  It showcases several illustrations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from the caricaturish Wonka of Joseph Schindelman’s 1963 illustrations – somehow much more discomforting than Quentin Blake’s familiar angular Wonka – to a slightly surrealist, psychedelic rural Wonkaland from the mid-1980s.  You see, for example, Bobby from The Railway Children depicted as a conventional Edwardian child in CE Brock’s original line drawings from 1906, and then compare this with the soft-hued illustration for an edition a century later; a dreamlike scene that tells of the urgency of the situation.

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Paddington Bear sketch sent to Curator Dr Matthew Eve by Peggy Fortnum, illustrations © Peggy Fortnum

Beautifully laid out, with snippets of the illustrations popping out everywhere, it recalls how colour, attention to detail and an eye for humour can be used so effectively to pique the imagination. There are monochrome line drawings and Technicolor cartoons (including, inevitably, Peter Pan as imagined by Walt Disney), not to mention the beautiful watercolour painting used to illustrate the Rudyard Kipling story How the Whale Got His Throat, where you must lean in close to spot the tiny fish in the ominous dark ocean.  And looking around, you can see clearly how artists were influenced by the wider artistic world, not least in the bleak, futurist style of The Iron Man illustrations of the 1950s.

Our childhood favourites may be long ago put away to gather dust, but this gem of a show is an absorbing walk down memory lane for a reader of any age.  There are omissions – where is Narnia or Farthing Wood, what of Mary Poppins, or even the Worst Witch and any of Enid Blyton’s creations? But recalling them is part of the fun. Like one of those ‘best of’ lists this is a delicious burst of nostalgia, reminding of just why we fell in love with fiction in the first place.

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How the Whale Got His Throat from The Folio Society Limited Edition of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling © Niroot Puttapipat, 2012

Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics runs from 4 October 2013 to 26 January 2014 in the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery and is free.