The art of the Christmas card

It’s the thin end of the wedge, the slippery slope, the beginning of the end of a civilised Christmas. It is the first week of December and I still haven’t started my cards. My friend Charlotte was at it in October. She signed up for a lino-cutting class, cut holly boughs and robin redbreasts and printed her own cards. She sent me photos of the fruits (berries?) of her labours and very merry they were, too. Usually, I am a Charlotte. By November, I have made cards, addressed envelopes, applied thumbs to 80 stamps. But after an illness in the autumn, I’m feeling as uncreative as a turkey. Could I

How crazy was Louis Wain?

Before Tom Kitten, before Felix the Cat, before Thomas ‘Tom’ Cat, Sylvester James Pussycat Sr, Top Cat and Fat Freddy’s Cat, there were the cats of Louis Wain. The Wain cat came in a variety of breeds and colours: black and white, tabby, marmalade, white and blue (sky blue rather than Persian). But it always had the same disconcerting look in its wide, glassy eyes with the dilated pupils. It looked bombed out of its tiny mind. The original Wain cat was a black-and-white kitten called Peter belonging to a young late-Victorian magazine illustrator and his sick wife. In 1884 the 24-year-old Louis Wain had married his sisters’ governess, Emily

Every page of this astonishingly beautiful ode to the citrus is a treat

There’s an episode of Yes Minister called ‘Equal Opportunities’. Minister Jim Hacker is under pressure to recruit more women to the civil service. The hunt is on for female mandarins. ‘Ah,’ says principal private secretary Bernard. ‘Sort of… satsumas?’ At this time of year, I can’t help thinking of Bernard as I hover in the Co-op over nets of tangerines, mandarins, clementines, satsumas and ‘easy peelers’, whatever they are. ’Tis the season for citrus. For oranges at the bottom of stockings, for Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning, for smoked salmon blinis with slices of lemon, for Milanese panettone with candied parings of peel, and for J.C. Volkamer’s The Book of

The grumpy genius of Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs has often spoken of his annoyance at being associated with Christmas. His Snowman may fly across our screens each Christmas day, but in the book there is no Father Christmas, no sleigh, and certainly no figgy pud. The North Pole scene featuring the jolly elf was written into the story for John Coates’s TV adaptation in 1982 and struck Briggs as rather mawkish at the time. As readers and viewers of Father Christmas know, Briggs’s Papa Noël is anyway rather a grouch at this time of year. As if the cold isn’t enough for him to contend with, there are the chimneys, the tasteless presents, and, oh yes,

The gentle genius of Mervyn Peake

To be a good illustrator, said Mervyn Peake, it is necessary to do two things. The first is to subordinate yourself entirely to the book. The second is ‘to slide into another man’s soul’. In 1933, at the age of 22, Peake did precisely that. Relinquishing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools to move to Sark, in the Channel Islands, he co-founded an artists’ colony and took to sketching fishermen and romantic, ripple-lapped coves. He put a gold hoop in his right ear, a red-lined cape over his shoulders, and grew his hair long, like Israel Hands or Long John Silver. The incredible thing was that he had yet

The gloriously indecent life and art of Aubrey Beardsley

Picture the young aspirant with the portfolio of drawings pitching up nervously at the eminent artist’s studio, only to be turned away at the door by a servant; then the master catching up with him, inviting him in and delivering the verdict on his portfolio: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession; but in your case I can do nothing else.’ Within two short years of this fairy-tale meeting in the summer of 1891 between Edward Burne-Jones and the 18-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, the self-taught insurance clerk who had fallen under the Pre-Raphaelite spell had turned himself into the most talked-about artist in London. Van

John Flaxman is the missing link between superhero movies and Homer

As you enter the forecourt of the Royal Academy, you see them. A row of artistic titans, carved in stone, peer down from their alcoves in the higher half of the gallery’s façade. Thanks to the name plaques, they’re easily identified. You can see Pheidias, the genius of the Parthenon; Leonardo and Raphael; Sir Christopher Wren. And then there’s… John Flaxman. Who? That’s a completely legitimate question. If these guys are, so to speak, the Avengers of art history, then Flaxman is the equivalent of Hawkeye. Hell, maybe he’s Agent Coulson. Even on his plinth, he has a mildly apologetic air. Under a bald pate, his hair hangs down in

The beauty of Soviet anti-religious propaganda

Deep in the guts of Russian library stacks exists what remains — little acknowledged or discussed — of a dead and buried atheist dream. The dream first took shape among Russian radicals of the mid-19th century, to whom the prospect of mass atheism seemed the key to Russia’s salvation. When Lenin seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks integrated it into their vision of heaven on earth. To the extent that people in the West have heard of this atheist dream, it has come to them mainly through the voices of its enemies. In 1983, Ronald Reagan put Lenin’s rejection of religion at the heart of Soviet unfreedom in his ‘Evil

Blessed be the fruit

Bunnies were out. Beatrix Potter had the monopoly on rabbits, kittens, ducks and Mrs Tittlemouses. ‘I knew I had to bring in creatures of some kind,’ wrote Roald Dahl on his first thoughts towards a children’s book. ‘But I didn’t want to use all the old favourites that had been used so often before, like bunnies and squirrels and hedgehogs. I wanted new creatures that no one else had ever used.’ After making a long list of earwigs, pond skaters and Devil’s coach-horse beetles, Dahl cast a centipede, an earthworm, a silkworm, a glow-worm, a spider, a ladybird and an old-green-grasshopper. ‘It was fun,’ the author wrote, ‘to sit down

Serial genius

‘It’s no use at all,’ says Posy Simmonds in mock despair, holding up her hands. ‘I can’t tell my left from my right.’ She is ambidextrous. ‘This hand [her right] writes and draws; and this hand [her left] cuts out, sharpens pencils, throws balls, plays tennis… I can’t drive. I’ve never taken a test. I’m always on the wrong side of the road.’ Looking at these wonderful hands, elegant and almost limp, one would never suppose they had created, over the past 50 years, such a large volume of intensely enjoyable and astute drawings. Reliably funny and wise, her work ranges from Fred (1988), about the secret rock-star life of

Pirates on parade

Avast there, scurvy dogs! For a nation founded on piracy (the privateer Sir Francis Drake swelled the exchequer by raiding the Spanish, who were in no doubt that he was a pirate), it is appropriate that Britain should give the international archetype of the pirate his language. The language of the Victoria & Albert’s exhibition A Pirate’s Life for Me at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is a banquet of humour and doggerel. Whether you arrive a slipperslopper sea-cook, reeking of Havanas, or pushing treasures in a pram, you will stare at walls, speak in tongues and smile. These master (and mistress) mariners of yore have their grappling

The real Tolkien

To no one’s surprise, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford, where J.R.R. spent so much of his time, has been a huge success. Were tickets on sale, it would be a sell-out, but the Bodleian has made it free. The visitors book is peppered with observations such as: ‘It made me cry with joy… sensationally splendid’.There’s also a less hyperbolic view, in a childish hand: ‘It was interesting to see how he made The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.’ It is rather a small show, a remarkable feat of compression on the part of the curator, Catherine McIlwaine, who had to pare down 500

Minor key

‘When I’m on good form,’ Edward Bawden told me, ‘I get to some point in the design and I laugh and talk — and if I’m laughing, it probably means the work is rather good.’ You can see his exuberance everywhere in the exhibition of his work at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is a thoroughly jolly affair, but it also raises a delicate question: was Bawden (1903–89) really a serious artist? He was certainly a tricky one to pigeon-hole. Bawden is, deservedly, one of the most popular of 20th-century Britishartists. But when one thinks of him, it is hard to bring a major work to mind — much harder than

Lines of beauty | 7 December 2017

The thing about Winnie-the-Pooh, 91 years old this year, is that he’s the creature of E.H. Shepard, who drew him, quite as much as he is of A.A. Milne, who created him. The words and the pictures came together for anyone who encountered Pooh Bear in the books rather than the film. Any exhibition about him, then, has to grapple with the difficulty of doing justice to the text as well as to the drawings. And, moreover, to the fact that many of those who love him best heard about him first in a story that was read aloud. And for all that Pooh is a byword for world-class —

Dark side of the Moomins

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model. We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the

Frills and furbelows

Over the winter of 1859–60, a handsome young man could be seen patrolling the shores of the Gulf of Messina in a rowing boat, skimming the water’s surface with a net. The net’s fine mesh was not designed for fishing, and the young man was not a Sicilian fisherman. He was the 25-year-old German biologist Ernst Haeckel from Potsdam searching for minute plankton known as Radiolaria. In February he wrote excitedly to his fiancée, Anna Sethe, that he had caught 12 new species in a single day — ‘among them the most charming little creatures’ — and hoped to make it a full century before leaving. Haeckel had a degree

A method to his madness

I first came across the extraordinary creations of the artist and illustrator William Heath Robinson at least 60 years ago. I loved them, even though I may not have understood every nuance. When I look once more at old favourites such as the machine for conveying peas to the mouth I often spot in the corner some little twist or joke that I had not seen before. What also wasn’t clear at the time is how prescient some of his contraptions were — in one illustration you can see a prototype selfie stick; in another he invents the silent disco. Many of his madcap solutions were semi-serious responses to societal

Munchkins and mischiefs

Arthur Rackham shouldn’t have lived in anything as conventional as a house. It should have been a gingerbread cottage, like the one he drew for Grimms’ Fairy Tales, with cakes for a roof and boiled sugar for windows. Or a Rapunzel turret, for letting down ropes of long, blonde hair, except he was so very goblin-bald. Or a Sleeping Beauty palace with a spinning-wheel in the topmost tower. As it was, he lived in Chalcot Gardens, north of Primrose Hill and south of Hampstead Heath, with his wife Edyth Starkie, a portrait painter, and their daughter Barbara, at the end of an 1880s row set back from the road. It

Serious concerns

It’s funny, isn’t it, how a dust jacket on a book can draw you to it from the other end of a room — always supposing the illustration is by Edward Ardizzone. In fact, is there anything more suggestive of delight than a book illustrated by him? It’s the Midas touch even for unprepossessing authors. The exhibition of his work at the House of Illustration finishes off with a wall lined with them: The Little Grey Men, Jim at the Corner, Italian Peepshow, Johnny’s Bad Day, Eleanor Farjeon’s Book… you’ll recognise lots. And there’s something utterly distinctive about every one: the boy’s upturned nose, the rounded line of a motherly

A breath of fresh air

His professional achievements aside, Quentin Blake’s life has been rather short on biographical event, so this book is not a biography. (That gets dispatched briefly in a six-page timeline.) Rather, it’s a grateful appreciation — partisan, certainly, but well argued — of all that this remarkable artist has given us. Through his books, his pictures on hospital walls and his support for a variety of campaigns, Blake has brought joy, laughter and solace. The pictures in this book will make you smile. Blake’s 300-plus publications include many he originated himself, among them some of the supreme examples of picture-book art — think of the slyly hilarious counting books Cockatoos and