Celebrating a triumvirate of British Book Illustration

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It is not often that one gets the opportunity to stand and gaze upon the first folio of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies printed in 1623, but there I was in a small room at the Globe Theatre, staring in awe at what has been described as the most influential book ever printed – a true icon of our collective heritage. It was a humbling occasion.

Moments like this are a perk of working in the fascinating and diverse field of original book illustration, one of our oldest artistic traditions in which England has excelled for well over fifteen hundred years, since the seventh century northern scriptoria at Lindisfarne and Monkwearmouth-Jarrow produced Europe’s finest illuminated manuscripts. A vibrant artistic heritage which, over the centuries, has morphed into a variety of different incarnations, each beholden to its predecessor, much to the benefit of our modern era.                                                                         

I stood there at the Globe as an invitee of one of our current stellar illustrative talents, bedecked with accolades and awards from his many books, including the one being launched that evening, The Folio Society’s Complete Plays by William Shakespeare. This glorious production is a wonderful three-volume boxed set, designed and illustrated by my good friend Neil Packer. [The Folio Society, edition of 1000] It is a labour of love. The project has taken him years to research and produce and, as with our monastic forebears, the result is a wonderfully original and imaginative piece of technical creative mastery. Page upon page is richly imagined, each piece of artwork adding to the wealth of our literary heritage. Neil is a wonder, with a unique ability to switch with ease from the finesse of early modern English to contemporary popular fiction, witnessed by the success of his recent commission on the latest Harry Potter projects.
His continual stream of artistic consciousness pours out on the page, with inspiration scooped up from traditions the world-over. A winner of the globally coveted BolognaRagazzi Award and one of eight short-listed for the Victoria and Albert Museum Illustration Award 2024, he is a testament to the enduring strength of this majestic tradition in which this country excels.
Not dissimilar in spirit is the masterful John Lawrence, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, with over seventy years of publishing achievement.John is arguably one of the greatest British wood-engravers of the past hundred years, holding the torch for centuries of this unique British artistic oeuvre, initiated by Thomas Bewick and elaborated upon by talents such as Samuel Palmer, Eric Gill and Gwen Raverat from whom John has been passed the laurels of triumph. Recent years have seen him gain fame for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series with his signature wood engravings, so elegantly and concisely crafted. Earlier years saw a rise to fame in the early 1970with his sublime bucolic depictions of Richard Adams’ best-selling Watership Down, John being commissioned to produce the first illustrated edition in 1975. His artwork is highly regarded world-wide, featured in private and public institutions internationally and eagerly sought after by amateurs and collectors alike.

Completing this triumvirate is Brian Wildsmith who, like Neil Armstrong in 1969, took one small step to the benefit of all. Along with Maurice Sendak, and John Burningham he was a book illustrator whose work changed everything. The dramatic technical innovations of four-colour separation at the start of the 1960s allowed for mass- produced full-colour illustrated books to be published affordably.

Brian, encouraged by the influential publisher Mabel George at Oxford University Press, was one to usher in a golden era of British illustrated picture books. The first of which was his Arabian Nights, [OUP, 1961] although he is best remembered for his Brian Wildsmith’s ABC, [OUP, 1962] for which he won the Kate Greenaway Medal. This simple wordless book, aimed at young children, was a masterpiece of abstracted full colour painting with each work distilled down to the page of a book. It endures to this day as one of the great picture book classics, its influence still evident among students and art-schools. 


The recently published anthology Paws, Claws, Tails and Roars, Brian Wildsmith’s Animal Kingdom, [OUP 2023] further confirms his continuing and well-deserved seat at the high table of book illustration.Born into a mining family in Penistone, Yorkshire, his northern roots were not entirely dissimilar to his contemporary Hockney who, like Brian, also taught at The Maidstone College of Art.

Seemingly humble origins were no restraint, and a scholarship to The Slade School of Fine Art in London augmented an illustrious career. Brian has become one of the great names of book illustration world-wide, worshipped in Asia with fervour not seen since the Beatles. The Brian Wildsmith Museum of Art at Izu Kogen was one of the best-loved museums in Japan, and its exhibition entitled Fantasia from a Fairyland, held at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum in 2005, saw over one and a half million visitors pass through its doors.

Closer to home Barnsley, at whose school of art Brian studied from the age of seventeen, has now taken up the torch with an all-encompassing retrospective of his artwork, opening at the Barnsley Museums on April 20th. This diverse exhibit, spread over two venues, celebrates his wide-ranging achievements, allowing visitors to appreciate and relish the wonderful colour palette and breadth of vision of this great British artist. Appealing to both adults and children alike this event is not to be missed. [The World of Brian Wildsmith, the Barnsley Museums, Barnsley, 20th April – 21 September 2024}.

Image Credits: 
Brian Wildsmith: https://www.brianwildsmith.com/  

Visit our Books and Manuscript department for more information.

This article is courtesy of a highly-valued AAG Specialist, who has thirty years experience in the auction houses and private galleries of paintings, drawings, illustration art  and the international art market.

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