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!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Helping Hands

Here's a funny little book, by Oliver Senior: How to draw hands. It's part of a huge series of guides to drawing specific things. Others titles include, Trees, Birds, Locomotives, Perspective, Merchant Ships (!), Rolling Stock (!!!), Churches and cathedrals... etc. I must try to find some. They are tiny but charming little books.

The title page reveals the vintage: first published 1944. It would be impossible to show these hands with a cigarette today. Back then it must have seemed the most natural use for idle hands. How times change.

In book illustration today there is an encroaching dismissal of academic drawing skills. Things can be whizz-banged through a computer and bad drawing is very often forgiven as "quirky". I suppose I'm rather old-school, in that while my own drawing is a long way from ideal, I do respect traditional skills, those of observation and recording information through drawing. It's a skill that is fading in our modern digital age and I think the ability to draw well is essential to any artist. The 20th century, and artists like Picasso, changed everything of course, but these people could in fact draw. Even Tracy Emin can draw (Beware: name-drop coming) - I was at art school with her (albeit in different departments; we never spoke), and she regularly hung up large dramatic drawings of contorted figures.

Hands are known to be tricky to draw. And most art students of a certain age will remember the horror of filling sketchbooks with drawings of their left hand (unless they were left handed of course!). Personally I find feet harder. And what I really need is a book on how to draw horses feet. Now that would be useful. It's not on the list though. Perhaps no-one else can draw them either...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Castles on the Ground

I some respects this is a rather ugly little book. I don't know if it ever had a dust cover but the dingy brown boards are matched by the pea-souper gloom inside. I love John Piper's work, and the period of art and illustration to which he belongs, but his illustrations here, taken from lithographic prints I think, all have a post-war late 'forties air of grime and coal dust, bonfire smoke and twilight. It really doesn't make one want to live in England.

One can still admire the way he carves images out of tone, and elaborates them with dynamic, eccentric line work. There is no shortage of atmosphere. Yet they seem ill-matched to a text - by J.M. Richards - that "celebrates" (or at least discusses) suburban living.

Chapter One: The Englishman's Home, provides the title of the book, in the sense that the reserved English psychology is in search of a castle to hide inside, and other chapters explore the "Anatomy of Suburbia", "Compactness above all" and "This desirable residence". Taste, and "vulgar pretentiousness" are explored, as is the thorny issue of class... from a middle class perspective.

Richards captures the intimacy of what was then (and still in some ways is) Modern Living: "In the hall, in addition to the faint smell of furniature polish we would have noted an even fainter scent of Pear's soap coming from the downstairs cloakroom".

Writing in 1946, Richards is inevitably rather dated in many of his views. But not always. As someone who is currently living in Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, I was especially interested to read: ""how the Garden City was invented by Ebenezer Howard as an inspiring social theory but declined, through repeated emphasis on inessentials, into a retreat for cranks and a subject for the misplaced enthusiasm of the well intentioned". Now that could have been written yesterday, and is particularly pertinent with a "town centre redevelopment" currently under way.

Other things are ridiculous statements: "A legitimate complaint against suburbia is that it spreads itself too widely. As the motorist drives out of town along his concreted highway, his hopes of green fields are frustrated mile after mile".

There seems to be no understanding of the changes modern living - and motor cars - was bringing. Of course roads were quieter then, and it must have been hard to anticipate the congested roads we have today. But the very concept of fast individual travel is what has created an ever increasing need for suburban living. Roads - concreted highways - are the ultimate enemy of green fields. Not to mention pollution. I wonder what Richards would make of modern housing estates, Wimpey homes, high rise flats and all the other blots on the landscape which for some people is the nearest they get to having a castle of their own.

Letchworth Garden City may have lost it's way, but at least it had a vision, a dream, at it's core, however diluted it has become. Today there is little integrity when it comes to developing houses - pack 'em in, seems to be the philosophy.

A really odd little book, just 80 pages long. I suppose this is an interesting glimpse of social and architectural history (the book was published by The Architectural Press). I shall keep it... if only for the gloomy and brooding illustrations.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream

Here's a real unmissable treat! a rare book of work by that Czech magician of puppets and art, Jiri Trnka. He's a bit of a cult animator and artist. Those "in the know" love his work, but it remains hard to find. Hardest of all is the film he created of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Only once was it broadcast - on Channel 4 around 20 years ago with Richard Burton narrating. No DVD has ever been commercially issued.

So here is a dusty old book I cherish for allowing me to relive the memory of his exquisite, and rhapsodically beautiful animated film.

This book retells the story simply, and illustrates it largely with photographic stills, plus original drawings. It was only when I saw the drawings that I recognised Trnka's work as an illustrator: he brought the Grimm bothers and Hans Christian Anderson to delicate, witty and elegant life for me when little, but no doubt being unable to pronounce his name, I'd not registered who the illustrator was until I saw this book, given to me by my good friend, the illustrator Pam Smy.

Trnka, who died in 1969, was Prague based and produced many other magical films, often based on Czech folklore. He was, appropriately awarded the Hans Christian Anderson medal for his services to children's literature just a year before his death.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably an exotic subject for a Czech animator, and he gives it a proper Greek (as opposed to the oft-used cod-Elizabethan) setting. The enchantment he creates in the magical forest and the charm of his rather fey but stoll sensual Titania, and his Bacchus-like Oberon, emerging from Nature, is dazzling. And all the workers have true and funny characteristics. Yet all is still elegant and graceful. Even Bottom has an elfin charm in this irresistable film. The stop-motion technique, as usual, has great humanity and depth to it. I have not seen a single modern animated film that can match it.

Happily, a few snippets of this beauitiful film exist on Youtube. So if you love these images as much as I do, click HERE for the real thing. The man was a genius and deserves to be celebrated and loved...