Just back from an exhilarating jaunt to Barter Books in Alnwick. I resisted the temptation to simply give them power of attorney over my bank account and scoop up all their delectable offerings, but I did wallow in joyful recognition of These We Have Loved. A trawl of the shelves produces books-I-once-knew and books-I-want-to-meet in about equal proportions. My first books, like yours, were picture books. Words got added as my ability to read them grew, but the pictures were always part of the experience. Where does it say in the book of rules that once we have reached full height we can no longer be allowed the pleasure of the illustrated book? Here are some favourites, a few recommendations, and a heart-felt plea.
My uncle – one of those best sorts of uncle, who never seemed to notice any disparity in age between uncle and niece – gave me two books in childhood that were fabulous, gorgeously illustrated and, it turned out, hugely influential in shaping my future reading and interests. The first was Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, published by the now-moribund Purnell & Sons and illustrated by the Grahame Johnstone sisters, Janet and Ann. You may know their work from their illustrations for Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Bereft of my childhood copy, I finally tracked one down a few years ago and had the thrill of finding that the pictures were, unusually, exactly as I had remembered them. The story-telling is of the very finest quality too: how many really quite small children do you know who spend their time being a Trojan princess? Because that, dearest reader, was how I whiled away many a happy childhood hour. The second treasured gift was a re-telling of Don Quixote with – crucially – amazing, dream-like illustrations by Giovanni Benvenuti. No matter that I was about six years old: I was hooked.
As I grew to teenagerdom, the illustrations started to seep out of the books I was reading. I missed them, along with the exercise books at school with lines on one side, for writing on, and blank pages on the other, for drawing. I wonder whether the world might not be a nicer place if all notebooks, especially, perhaps, those provided in Cabinet, were made along these lines, and a nice fat pot of coloured pencils plonked onto the green baize. However. The one disadvantage with illustrations is when the principal characters have not been drawn in strict accordance with how they look inside your head: akin to the gross miscasting of television or film versions. Remember the mental scars Dick Van Dyke left on all you Mary Poppins’ readers? Like that. One of the reasons why Arthur Ransome turned out to be the perfect illustrator of his own books is that, lacking confidence in his ability to draw faces, he shows the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coots and all the rest only from the rear, at a great distance or wearing hats.
But as adults, if it were not for the splendours of Folio Books, we would be in danger of falling for the half-baked idea that pictures are only for children: which would come as news to the maker of the Lindisfarne Gospel. I am pleased to report that Barter Books have a whole section devoted to second-hand copies of Folio books, so your next trip to Alnwick (cracking little town, wonderful garden, Harry-Potter themed Castle if that’s your sort of thing and wonderful, fantastic, lyrical countryside and beaches within spitting distance) might be a good opportunity to start your collection of illustrated Austens, Trollopes, Waughs or Chandlers (the illustration I have chosen is by Tatsuro Kiuchi. Can you see what it is yet?). And the lovely Miss Read publishers stuck doggedly and delightfully to her requirement to have her books illustrated, by John Goodall for many years. The drawings are idiosyncratic, just right and form part of the pleasure of the text. Otherwise we visually-starved grown-ups are thrown to the mercies of the sort of publishers who – and I promise I am not making this up – produce copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets interleaved with reproductions of Hilliard miniatures and twee watercolours of flowers, and scented. Yup: honestly. The whole damn book, scented with the reek of artificial violets. Someone who did not know me at all well once gave me a copy, not, I regret to say, in a discernible spirit of irony.
Or we could find solace in cookery books. Not the rather intimidating photographs of what it all should look like (but probably won’t even if I become the sort of person who follows the instructions slavishly), but the strange, oddly brooding woodcuts that decorate the original Elizabeth David books. They are by John Minton, an unhappy soul who deserves greater recognition than as side-kick to the waspish Mrs David, who didn’t much like his work.
So, please don’t deprive us of pictures just because we’re over ten years old. Yes, I know the best ones are the ones the words make in our heads (precisely why radio is so vivid) and no, Idon’t want every character, every setting and every twist in the plot laboriously spelled out in watercolour, any more than I want great solemn chunks of physical description of our heroine and what she is wearing: but decoration that adds to the mood of the piece can only add to the enjoyment. After all, I have long thought that of the two best jobs in the world, one must be the lucky person who chooses the front cover art for books (can I have John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for Women in Love please?). The other best-job-in-the-world? Why, naming paint colours of course.