Dream of a drawing room

20th December 2002 at 00:00
A much-needed UK gallery dedicated to picture book art is now a gleam in Quentin Blake's eye. Joanna Carey finds Eric Carle paving the way in Massachusetts

The news that artist and illustrator Quentin Blake plans to set up a museum of illustration in London has been received with great enthusiasm. The capital has no non-commercial gallery that specialises in illustration, and Blake sees this as an opportunity to provide not only gallery space for a wide variety of artists from students to established illustrators worldwide, but also a forum for discussion.

There's clearly an audience: illustration exhibitions organised by the Centre for the Children's Book in Newcastle upon Tyne have generated much interest; Blake himself has curated several shows, including, currently, Magic Pencil at the British Library, launched by the centre in September.

The Shirley Hughes retrospective at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum (until January 26, then Liverpool) is also drawing large numbers.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Arthur Rackham opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London (see Going Out, page 28).

While reappraisals of such influential figures are vital, it's equally important for children to explore the work of living artists such as Hughes and those represented in Magic Pencil - picture books are so numerous that the art is at risk of being taken for granted. Museums can be intimidating for children, but an exhibition of illustration inevitably offers an element of familiarity.

Illustration has a cross-generation appeal, but children often have an instinctive understanding of aspects of the work that may escape adults. Bombarded from infancy with sophisticated imagery on film, television and advertising, they are probably more visually aware than ever before: now is a good time to investigate the work of our illustrators, when there are so many techniques and so many approaches to the business of combining words and pictures.

It's not just in the UK that illustration for picture books is seen as an increasingly serious art form. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which opened last month in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the first museum in the United States entirely devoted to picture book illustration.

Anyone who has ever had anything to do with young children will know Eric Carle's books. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, first published in 1969, is not only a first encounter with words and pictures together but an unforgettably tactile experience. It has sold more than 17 million copies, and is translated into more than 30 languages.

Carle, now 73, has 70 books to his name. Some years ago, while discussing the future of his estate with his wife, Barbara, they hit upon the idea of a museum. Initially, it was a modest proposal. "I envisaged a large room alongside my studio where I could show my work and other people's," Carle says. "Visitors would look around, buy a postcard and that would be it."

But the idea grew, and inspired by the knowledge that Japan has 20 such museums, the Carles saw an opportunity to "celebrate the art we are first exposed to as children, and that we carry with us throughout our lives".

Barbara Carle says: "Eric had never sold any illustrations. We had 1,200 originals, so, endowed with artworks and royalties, we realised we could begin to develop a programme that would support a museum."

They created a charitable foundation and raised "significant" contributions from Carle's USpublishers, Penguin Putnam and HarperCollins, plus gifts from individuals. The result is a magnificent 40,000 square foot museum constructed on time, and within the $15 million (pound;9.5 million) budget.

The clean lines of the minimalist building echo the shapes of the hills beyond. Besides the three galleries there's an auditorium, a large library, a studioworkshop, a shop and a cafe.

The museum's director, art historian Nick (H Nichols B) Clark, is keen to point out that this is not a "discovery" museum: there are no buttons to push; no electronic wizardry. Instead there's a more immediate interaction; all the artworks are accessible at child's-eye level. And in contrast to the airy lobby, where children can mill about on their way to the library or workshop, the galleries, with suspended ceilings and woodblock floors, have an intimate, contemplative feel. Lighting is subtle, and there are low benches and piles of books so visitors can compare the printed illustrations with the originals.

Clark, who is developing a comprehensive educational programme, is passionate about the way the museum is to be used. Too often, he says, museums leave visitors to their own devices or, worse, they tell exactly how you should look, leaving nothing to the imagination. So, rather than placards offering someone else's interpretation of the works, strategically placed questions on the wall trigger a personal response.

The child's view, says Clark, is as relevant as the adult's. He aims to banish the anxiety many people feel in a museum, and to give them confidence to talk about what they see.

Three very different artists feature in the inaugural exhibition. The first large gallery contains 60 works by Carle; from his earliest picture books to his designs for a recent production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. You see the development of his unique collage technique, with the freshness and bold page design that make his pictures so easy to read.

Gallery 2 contains the work of Australian artist Robert Ingpen, who has donated a set of preliminary drawings and completed illustrations that show how a book develops. The museum's collection currently depends on gifts, says Clark. "Usually it's libraries that receive gifts like this, but they seldom have exhibition space."

The other large gallery offers an enlightening look at Maurice Sendak, with work from Where the Wild Things Are, Higglety Pigglety Pop, In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There and more, including Sendak's own designs for The Magic Flute.

The exhibition includes works by artists to whom Sendak has paid homage in his illustrations. This includes a woodcut by Duerer, who was clearly an influence on his drawings for The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm.

Etchings and engravings by William Blake and Samuel Palmer show the inspiration for the atmospheric intensity of his pen-and-ink drawing and the velvety crepuscular textures he creates. "I never learned etching or engraving," he says, "but I get through a lot of nibs."

Works by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, Thomas Rowlandson and Randolph Caldecott further demonstrate Sendak's wide frame of reference, and a small painting by Winslow Homer of two figures in conversation by a wooden fence instantly throws light on his lyrical watercolours for Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present. "That book," Sendak recalls with a smile, "offended certain librarians - there were complaints of indecency because the (fully dressed) little girl was talking to a naked rabbit. They complained about Mickey too, in In The Night Kitchen. Some librarians even inked over his nakedness - so, of course, you'd see children holding the pictures up to the light."

That was 30 years ago. Today, Sendak is clearly delighted with this museum, its 21st-century approach to picture book art and the presentation of his work. "Sometimes, when people show my work, they cram in too much. This show, which includes some of the small early drawings, is thoughtful. They've kept things in proportion - it's a very honest show."

There's something honest and thoughtful about this whole enterprise. In its first month, the museum attracted 13,000 visitors. Amherst, Massachusetts, may not be on the doorstep, but a museum that celebrates with such style and commitment an art form that is part of all our lives is surely an inspiration.

More information about the Eric Carle Museum at www.picturebookart.org. The Eric Carle retrospective, 'The Colourful World of Eric Carle', launching a series of thematic exhibitions of Carle's Work, continues until March 23, 2003. Maurice Sendak's 'Inside and Out' continues until January 12. Robert Ingpen's exhibition, 'The Birth of a Book' runs until February 23

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