The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Old Herbaceous

This dusty old book, by Reginald Arkell, is a touching and wistful story about an aging gardener during a time of change and his relationship with old Mrs Chatteris. Lady Chatterley's gardener he is not, but the book is charming and touching with little bits of old fashioned wisdom scattered around the pages.

What really makes it desirable (and is the reason I spotted it) is the illustrations by John Minton, one of my favourite artists, and one whose life is every bit as poignant as any story.

His distinctive line graced many post-war books; notably he illustrated Elizabeth David's cookery books. He belongs to the great era of British artists, to the tradition of Eric Ravillious and Edward Bawden, the golden age when Radio Times comissioned real artists and they casually gave them little gems to print. Minton was born in 1917 and in the second World War was a conscientious objector. Prone to depression (and alcohol) he died of a drugs overdose at a tragically young age. One can only imagine what he might have gone on to achieve.

The bucolic scenes of rural happiness have a nervous edge to the line work. In hindsight one could almost image a troubled hand made the pictures. And yet I always felt he drew with such confidence and purpose. Certainly his approach (carried on by many subsequent book illustrators in the 1960s) was a huge influence on my work. It also looks back, I think, to an earlier age of British art, for in Minton I can see a worthy heir to Samuel Palmer, which is about the highest tribute I could pay the man.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Carnival of Venice

It will soon be that time of the year again, when the people of Venice put on their fantastical masks and take to the Grand Canal to celebrate their famous carnival. Today I listened to Donizetti's Venetian opera Lucrezia Borgia and I was suddenly reminded of a bizarre and beautiful book, which is one of the greatest arguments against the Kindle. For this book is hand made. Beautifully. It is completely unique.

It is called Navi Venete, and no author or illustrator stakes a claim on it. It is entirely anonymous and yet made with unwavering love and dedication. Inside the board covers, stitched into the book, are a collection of around 25 exquisite if rather naive paintings of Venetian ships. Some are taken from mosaics, others from paintings by Giotto or Tintoretto. Others from real ships. They range from tiny little boats, to battleships, and on to the splendid ceremonial ships of the spectacular carnival itself, with the city's protector, the Lion of St Mark proudly standing on flags of gold.

I have never been to Venice. It seems almost superfluous when so many other people have been. And yet I long to go. No doubt I would be bewildered by the light and the details on the architecture and get in a tizzy about how on earth to paint it and then struggling with the realisation that I am, alas, not J.M.W. Turner. But go I will...one day.

Until then, Leyla Gencer sings Donizetti's music and these beautiful little paintings fill my head with dreams and hopes of what I might one day discover when I finally get there.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Another garden

From my friend Saviour. A lovely vintage edition...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A Child's Garden of Verse

It was Phyllis Ann Wangui Ramage who reminded me of R.L Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses", and it has been wonderful to rediscover all my various editions. I bet Kindle will never have every illustrated version available. How much will be lost if these higly varied approaches are lost in the rush to homogenise our digital world.

As a child I had just one book of these poems, illustrated by Hilda Boswell, which I still have and love with my sister and I's disrespectful scribbles within... Like a large format ladybird book, it would be easy to dismiss these illustrations as emphatically literal but, notwithstanding nostalgic eyes, I have enormous respect for these illustrations.

Interpreting verse like this "straight" is the hardest thing of all to do, and Boswell does it superbly, and always from a child's point of view. When witches and fairies are asked for (in "From a Railway Carriage" for example - which I can still recite from memory!) then you get exactly that. As a child I really enjoyed that value-for-money approach, and more importantly, it really allowed me to understand the poems very easily and quickly.

By contrast, I have a very old edition, from 1904, with fascinating and exquisitely designed illustrations (in an Art Nouveau manner) by Charles Robinson, full of the expected eccentric detail. Yet would I have been so enchanted by these as a child? I suspect not, although the words remain as wonderful. These are almost too designed, too sophisticated for the playfulness of the verse.

Apart from A. A. Milne, I can think of no other collection of Verse like this for children and that's a surprise now I pause and think about it. This seems to capture childhood with uncanny accuracy. The idea of going to bed in summer when the sun still shines. Hiding behind the sofa and imaging armies in the fire. Building a ship on the stairs out of pieces of furniature or cities out of building blocks. Going dangerously high on a swing.

It all rings brilliantly true, remarkably so for the age of the poems. Of course it's all very white upper middle class (even though other countries and races are mentioned and imagined in some of the verse).I wonder what publishers would make of it all now. No doubt editors would be sharpening their red pencils. But to what benefit? Children should not be underestimated in their ability to understand different worlds and cultures to their own. I understood the context as a child perfectly well.

The other two editions take a more personal view of the verse. Roger Duvoisin, the Swiss illustrator, is one of my all-time heroes. His illustrations date from the 1940s, his heyday, and the black and white drawings in particular have a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. The colour endpapers are just gorgeous.

With the Provensens we go to the 50s, and in particular to America; their illustrations show the influence of American folk art as much as design practise of the time.

I love these books one and all, and it's wonderful to see all these different interpretations. What I particularly realise as an adult is how very touching and emotional the last few poems are, especially "To any reader". I confess I skipped those as a child. Now I can barely read them as the emotion in them is so potent.

"As you will see, if you look
through the windows of this book
Another child far away
And in another garden play..."

Anyone nostaligic for their own childhood, or who has been through the joy and emotion of raising a child will respond to the touching recognition of time passing, leaving only a trace of a memory:

"And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there."

Saturday, 2 January 2010

All the world's a stage...

The Children's Theatre Book
("For young dancers and actors") by Cecile Walton is the sort of book that just isn't produced anymore. There are plenty of modern activity books for children, all in garish full colour and with busily-designed pages that put you off immediately. This wordy and worthy book, published in 1949, is far more discreet and lengthy at over 100 pages, but somehow the thoroughness and the concentration required is far more inspiring, more mysterious, more satisfying than the gaudy modern counterparts.

Here, two rather middle-class children Paul and Pauline are encouraged by the kindly old Mr Curio to discover art, movement, expression and performance. Inspired, we are then shown how to make a toy theatre, in some substantial detail. Prosceniums, curtains, lighting and scenery are all explored.

Other chapters cover drawing, mime, the history of costume, "Make up and make believe" and even feet get their own chapter. Deportment and gesture are things modern children would barely be able to grasp I suspect.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a rather dry and old fashioned "lesson" book, yet what a treasure trove of imagination it contains. There are many beautiful drawings (not least the balletic endpapers)and there are even black-and-white reproductions of pertinant Old Masters, from Botticelli to Degas. One chapter is called "Another World". This book takes us there in more ways than one...