Purely pictorial precision

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Brian Alderson traces illustrator Peter Collington's path to his latest work - a wordless Christmas tale

Peter Collington is an impresario of dreams and secret lives. You can see it in his first picture book, Little Pickle (Methuen - a runner-up for the Mother Goose Award in 1986). The story, told entirely in pictures, starts off like one of those all-too predictable concept books - a day in the life of a be-nappied child. Suddenly the narrative swings around and child dozing in buggy pushed by mum turns into mum dozing in buggy pushed by child, who is freed for some adventurous journeyings.

Six books, all with similar flights into the bizarre, have followed. Thus, in The Angel and the Soldier Boy (Methuen 1987) two little dolls foil a raid on a sleeping child's piggy bank by pirates who inhabit a model galleon on the mantlepiece. In his first Christmas book, On Christmas Eve (Heinemann 1990), the tree fairies let Father Christmas into the house through the front door because there is no chimney. The same sleeping child (Collington's daughter, Sasha?) also appears in The Tooth Fairy (Jonathan Cape 1995). This, the most ingenious of Collington's books, makes a nice change from the usual loose-tooth moralities. Girl Power comes to fairyland and the self-assured tooth-fairy not only smelts the metal for the gift-coin in an underground foundry but also fashions reclaimed tooth-ivory into piano keys.

Since all these books function as wordless picture sequences, akin to Raymond Briggs's celebrated Snowman, the onus on Collington's powers as a draughtsman is heavy. In Little Pickle he employed a comparatively simple technique of drawn outline and plain, but carefully-worked, colour (already, though, showing a command of the size, angle and visual emphasis that allowed the framed "shots" to work together on the page). Since then he has developed a more refined technique, combining coloured pencil with tiny dabs of watercolour to create pictures of great harmony: an almost photographic realism which shimmers like a dreamscape.

An extraordinary exception is the daring experiment of The Coming of the Surfman (Jonathan Cape 1993), in which he turns from pictorial to verbal story-telling and from playful comedy to tragic parable. Fantasy is still present - who would credit that one man could convert an abandoned factory with its towering water-tanks into a wave-machine? - but the spare text with its full-page facing pictures, now done in gouache, carries overriding conviction.

If pessimism prevails here, then Collington's new Christmas book, A Small Miracle (Jonathan Cape, Pounds 9.99) is a bold attempt to expunge it. He returns to a purely pictorial "text", but one which draws on the painterly expressiveness and the socially engaged stance that derive from Surfman.

The central figure is an elderly woman, living alone in a wooden gypsy caravan and seeking a living by playing her accordion in town. Come Christmas, though, the cupboard is bare and she must sell her instrument - only to be at once robbed of her money by a villainous biker. Making her despairing way home, she sees the thief emerge from a church, having wrecked the Christmas crib and stolen a bucket of cash "for the needy".

This is the hinge of the story. The woman wrests the bucket from the skidding biker, bolts herself in the church, and puts Mary, Joseph, a shepherd and the Wise Men to rights.

During her lonely and potentially tragic walk home across the fields, Collington's magic realism takes over. The figures from the crib come charging across the snow, and a dark tale is brought glittering into light, warmth and comfort. This could also have been a twofold surrender to sentimentality, as gallant poverty is depicted being spurned by unheeding merrymakers, and as self-sacrificing poverty comes to be redeemed, almost literally, by a deus ex machina. What saves the story is the precision of Peter Collington's visual imagination and the uninhibited delight with which he marshals his supernatural rescue squad and sets them about the household chores for their Christmas good deed.

A Small Miracle by Peter Collington is published by Jonathan Cape, Pounds 9.99

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