A Power to Enthral

Henrietta Bredin on how book illustrations can bring the narrative to life

The Spectator, 4 October 2008

The illustrations in children's books play a crucial role in expanding the imaginative horizons of the reader and fixing the story in the memory. The very best book illustration is so inextricably linked to the text that it is hard to think of one without the other. Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda stories, quite apart from being published in alluringly small, pocketable volumes, are defined by Edward Ardizzone's dashingly vivid drawings, as are the chronicles of Narnia by Pauline Baynes's delicate and precise depictions of Mr Tumnus the faun, the valiant Prince Caspian and Jadis, the vicious, Turkish-Delight-bearing White Witch, while Roald Dahl's anarchic world is brilliantly matched by Quentin Blake and his raggedy, effervescent creations.

Long before any of the above, Andrew Lang's collections of fairy tales would state temptingly on the title page that they contained 'eight colour plates and numerous illustrations by H.J. Ford'. Then a list of those illustrations, picking out a particular phrase or key moment, would make one long to find out what could possibly be happening to someone who said 'Quick, prince, quick! The time is flying, comb me at once!' or 'I accept your challenge. Mount, and follow me. I am Zoulvisia.' In my copy of The Olive Fairy Book (it must have been one of the later volumes, when the more poetic colours such as Rose and Lilac had already been taken), some of the drawings have been carefully and beautifully coloured in by a previous owner. The same is true of my mother's old copies of Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up, which then acquired further, less successful, daubings by my sister and myself.

For quite a considerable period of my childhood I attempted to go about with my eyes fixed wide open, hoping that passing adults would remark upon my unblinking gaze, something which people seemed to admire inordinately in the staunchly plucky Dick Fauconbois (aka the Stormy Petrel), hero of the books by Violet Needham, also inherited from my mother. As much as the inspirational descriptions, it was the drawings by Joyce Bruce that so fired my imitative little soul. There stood Dick, looking into an heroic middle-distance, wearing the most fascinating clothes - a sort of Ruritanian/Bavarian mix - steadfast and courageous however desperate the circumstances.

The pictures in my edition of E. Nesbit's The Five Children and It are uncredited but there's a memorable drawing of the brilliantly funny moment when the children unwisely wish that they might become 'as beautiful as the day'. They are transformed from four rather hot and grubby specimens into a contemporary idea of fashionable pulchritude, complete with 'enormous blue eyes and a cloud of russet hair' for Jane and long golden curls for Cyril. They have a miserable time, with neither luncheon nor tea (an absence they mind greatly), as their nearest and dearest fail to recognize them, refusing them entry to their own home. Increasingly hungry and fed up, whenever they look at each other their woes are increased by the realization that 'their faces were so radiantly beautiful as to be quite irritating to look at'.

Of course there were also times when the illustrator's work did not appeal. I hated, for example, the colour plates in The Swish of the Curtain, which had a strangely lurid, Quality Street air to them and which depicted the characters in a way that failed to chime with my idea of how they should look. They seemed far too old and, frankly, rather louche. Were those girls wearing lipstick?!

Beyond all others, the drawings that had the most power and that entirely enthralled me were by Charles Keeping. It was in books by Rosemary Sutcliff that I first encountered his work but where I was most gripped, both by text and illustrations, was in the two collections of Greek myths co-written by Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield, The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Arrow. These were a revelation. Uncompromising and fabulously wrought poetic language with bleak, often terrifying images.

Some years later, the Folio Society had the inspired idea of commissioning Keeping to illustrate new editions of the novels of Charles Dickens. It must have been a daunting prospect - sixteen volumes, and the long shadows cast by the familiar and much loved illustrations of Cruikshank and Phiz to contend with. But the results are startlingly subtle and strong, and always sensitive to the text. One great advantage for Keeping was that he didn't have to work under Dickens' personal direction - he could make his own choices, selecting the angles that suited him.

So why don't more publishers commission illustrations for both fiction and non-fiction aimed at anyone over primary school age? There are some interesting design choices being made - Persephone Books with their enticing endpapers and matching bookmarks, Virago's new reprints of modern classics with wittily acute choices of cover design: Biba's Barbara Hulanicki for Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann for example. But this is just wrapping. Visionary commissioning seems to have become the lone preserve of the Folio Society, long may it flourish.

Publishing director David Hayden describes the process of matching writer to illustrator as a 'long conversation' and says that the hardest road often produces the best results. He admits that, in the planning for an edition of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, they were 'pushed really hard' by the author, looking at the work of numerous artists, about whom the author turned out to be extremely knowledgeable, before everyone was happy with a final choice. They must have been thankful not to have to deal with the sort of problems potentially faced by anyone attempting to illustrate the Harry Potter books - page after page of restrictive detail laid down in contract form by Warner Brothers to 'protect the brand'.

The long conversations must be particularly rewarding when the writers concerned are still alive. Kazuo Ishiguro was apparently delighted with Finn Campbell Notman's illustrations for The Remains of the Day while by contrast, Patrick Susskind was adamant that there should be no illustration of any kind for Perfume (might a scratch 'n' sniff flyleaf have been an option?). The Folio Society is wise enough to know when to leave well alone, as in the Molesworth books - unimaginable without Ronald Searle - or Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives, where the original drawings by Walter Trier have been retained in all their quirky, late 1920s charm. Sometimes they commission additional illustrations to complement the originals, as in the watercolours by Sophie McCarthy that are interleaved with John Minton's drawings for French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David.

Their ideas are highly imaginative too, backed up by impeccable research. A planned edition of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet will have illustrations based on contemporary photographs of Egypt, while Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian will take a combination approach, decorative but representational. There are so many nautical buffs out there, ready to pounce at the tiniest misrepresentation of a tight-rigged futtock shroud that the greatest care must be taken to get the details right but I hope that the artist will manage to get beyond that to convey some of the salty vigour of the narrative.

And on my own wish list? A new edition of Sacheverell Sitwell's Valse des Fleurs please, bound in violet silk with eau de nil endpapers, exquisitely decorated and embellished throughout by Lawrence Mynott.