Graphic Life Lessons: “Draw Me A Story” at The Hyde Collection
“What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation,” noted Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Bold adventures, classic fairy tales, nursery rhymes, animals and our ABCs all make for entertaining and provocative subject matter in the Hyde Collection’s new exhibit, “Draw Me A Story.” The show focuses on 130 years of children’s book illustration, from the 1870s up to 2006. Harrison Cady, Randolph Caldecott, Palmer Cox, Jules Feiffer, Kate Greenaway, Sarah Noble Ives, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and contemporaries George Avison and Chris Van Allsberg are just some of the wonderful and gifted cartoonists and illustrators that bring many of the classics to life.
Prior to the 1700s, children’s book illustration concerned itself with manners, education and religion. However, in 1744, John Newbury published “A Little Pretty Pocket Book”, which combined education and entertainment. The book was very successful and other children’s books soon followed. The British, Americans and French were just some of the western cultures that realized the need to enhance and expand the literary experience (and imagination) of young children.
Many of the stories (nursery rhymes, and fairy tales) have their roots in medieval folklore. These “lessons in life”, (good and bad), did not always have a happy ending and were filled with danger, jealousy and greed. This combined with a bouquet of characters (animals, insects, dwarfs, fairies, giants, monsters, kings, queens, princes, princesses, kind and evil souls, and natural forms) create a paradox that might intimidate anyone, yet a young child. It was how these talented artists combined a rich presentation of technique that transformed difficult themes into an assessable format. Lets face it, there is always something very adult about children’s book illustration which makes this show appropriate for all ages.
The development of children’s book illustration correlates with the evolution of the printing capabilities of the time. The images were created for reproduction. Flat black and white ink drawings were eventually replaced with color and form, which enhanced the mysterious space and gave the work a dimension that the viewer had not experienced before. The key to all of this is analogous color, simple and clear rendering of form and movement that is predictable and comfortable. Harmony creates the allure that draws the viewer in and eliminates any angst or anxiety. Even the darkest experiences are presented in such a way that one is always engaged. We all like to be scared sometimes and scary is good for business.
The exhibit is a walk down memory lane and back again. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience reading the stories and enjoying the illustrations of my youth, as well as those I shared with my sons. Having grown up in a family of printers and graphic artists I also appreciate the craftsmanship of the entire process. Before we had the ability to off-set print (photo-generated) book illustration, all of the images were individually lithographed on separate sheets of paper. The text was then set by hand and printed below the illustration on a second run. The quality of paper and the traditional application of ink produced a product that would last for years, something I lament when considering our contemporary printing process today. I also couldn’t help but reflect on how children’s book illustration evolved into animation and how much a part of our heritage and culture that has become. Illustrators and Cartoonist are sometimes not given the same status as some of our great fine artists, however I personally can’t express how important illustration was to my art education and I know many fine artist share that sentiment and experience.
Richard Stout is an artist living in Hague. In addition to writing reviews of art exhibitions for the Lake George Mirror, he lectures on art history to community groups.