I’m glad to count him among my friends, and he’s been working with us on the production of 200 Best Illustrators for many years, lending a historical perspective to the selection process. Matthew wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford University about children’s book illustration and book production in Britain during World War II, and has published numerous articles and lectured widely on the subject of book illustration and book design. Between 2008 and 2011, he was the post-doctoral research fellow on the Isotype Revisited project in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, and during that time he co-edited the much-acclaimed edition of Otto Neurath’s From Hieroglyphics to Isotype: A Visual Autobiography (Hyphen Press, 2010). He was archivist and cataloguer to the estate of the British designer Enid Marx (1902-1998), and in this capacity worked on the Marx/Lambert Folk Art Collection at Compton Verney, the Breuning-Eve Collection of Enid Marx Prints at Pallant House Art Gallery in Chichester, and the Enid Marx Archive at the V&A Museum. Additionally, he has worked as advisor on Enid Marx for the exhibitions Ravilious & Co. at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, and Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art at the House of Illustration, Kings Cross (currently running until 23 September 2018). In 2013, he guest-curated the exhibition Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics for the British Library, which subsequently went on tour to The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle and The River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames. As an illustrator, he has provided artwork for numerous book covers and poster campaigns for various publishers including Random House, Brass Wind Publications, and Palgrave Macmillan, in addition to editorial artwork for magazines and journals.
Hi Matthew, first of all, how did your own interest in this art form and your artistic progress in the medium evolve?
I loved picture books from an early age and remember being excited by the differing drawing styles of Dick Bruna, Dr. Seuss, Roger Hargreaves, Rex Whistler, Mervyn Peake, Edward Ardizzone, Maurice Sendak, Errol Le Cain, Richard Scarry, and Raymond Briggs. However, I think I first became aware of the real significance of book illustration when I was about ten or eleven. I was rereading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I found myself studying Faith Jaques’ very fine, black and white line drawings, which not only complemented but also added imaginatively to Dahl’s narratives. I loved how Jaques’ intricate webs of cross-hatching conjured complete atmospheric worlds with believable characters and an appropriate dose of dark humor. From that moment on, I started analyzing illustrators’ work, mainly in the medium of pen and ink, and made furtive attempts to emulate techniques and styles of pen drawing that I liked, and drew anything and everything from chairs in the living-room and landscapes, to poster designs and more imaginative subject matter. I just kept drawing and drawing, and although my early efforts were poor I was determined to master a traditional type of English line illustration that stretched back to the early 19th century (e.g. George Cruikshank, John Leech, and Phiz – all illustrators of Charles Dickens’ books). And with patience, the kind and nurturing support of my art teacher, Mr. Kitchener, who saw potential in the illustrative work I’d started producing at school, and my long-suffering parents (whose carpets, chairs and tables slowly got covered in black ink stains), I made slow but steady progress. At roughly the same time, I also started writing fan letters to illustrators I admired, asking them for advice about technique, their approach to texts, and how to make it in the business. Many older children’s book illustrators such as Faith Jaques, C. Walter Hodges, John Verney, John S. Goodall and John Ryan (creator of Captain Pugwash) – all of whom produced artwork for the Radio Times – started as correspondents but later became friends whom I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to about their craft.
After finishing at my secondary school, where I did well in Art and English Literature, I continued at a local sixth form college where I studied English, Classical Civilisation, and Art. In the art class, we were fortunate to have an excellent external tutor who taught us printing in etching and aquatint, as well as wood engraving. We also had life classes, and were encouraged to work on a host of art projects in different, often unusual or experimental media; additionally, I had the great privilege of joining the Head of Art, Bill Connelly, on numerous private trips to London where we researched the lives of forgotten British female illustrators about whom he’s written numerous authoritative articles and bibliographies. As well as the practical work, we could also submit a short thesis about art as part of our A-level, and I wrote three analytical essays about the British illustrators E. H. Shepard, Kathleen Hale, and Raymond Briggs, using letters from my own collection as reference material. Following this, I read English Literature and the History of Art at St. Andrews University, during which time I produced a large number of posters and publicity material for student theatre productions, concerts and magazines, and also started to receive commissions for cover designs for sheet music written by the British composer Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997), including Fish Heaven, which was a setting of Rupert Brooke’s poems The Fish and Heaven. Word of mouth worked in my favor and I was soon commissioned to illustrate books of music for children, and by the time I started my doctoral thesis (about children’s book illustration during WW2) at Christ Church, Oxford, was asked to produce cover and poster designs for a range of political books published by Palgrave Macmillan, plus work for other publishing houses, magazines and private clients.
It would seem to me that you are the perfect person to enlighten us on the history of British illustration.
I don’t think it’s possible to discuss British illustration without taking into account developments in printing processes and the art college teachers who taught and influenced new generations of artists. The new era of illustration in Britain started around 1910 when Noel Rooke began teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and became the originator of the modern movement of wood engraving in Britain, which was concerned with the compatibility of type with illustration, page design and the overall appearance of the book. Among Rooke’s pupils, the most notable were Robert Gibbings, John Farleigh, Claire Leighton, and Eric Gill, the latter of whom was responsible for producing the first modern sans serif letters for London Underground which are still in use on signs today. Meanwhile, Paul Nash brought his own brand of modernism to the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s, where his pupils included, perhaps, the two greatest and most influential illustrators and graphic designers of their generation, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, who would go on to produce designs and illustrations for a vast array of commercial projects ranging from posters, ceramics and wallpaper to murals, books and textiles. Through Paul Nash, Bawden, Ravilious and other RCA students such as Enid Marx and Barnett Freedman were introduced to Harold Curwen, whose belief in fine printing – irrespective of the size or type of work undertaken, whether private or commercial – brought a lightheartedness to everything the Curwen Press printed: from wood-engraved or hand-drawn decorative devices and fleurons to pattern papers and poster designs. Such artists brought a sense of design, color, and gaiety to an area of printing which had previously been totally neglected. Lithography and autolithography also developed rapidly throughout the 1920s, and firms such as the Baynard Press, Cowells, Vincent Brooks, Day & Son and the Curwen Press made it possible for the production of high-quality posters – for London Transport, the Empire Marketing Board, Guinness, and Shell – that must be called works of art, as well as the emergence of poster art as a distinct species. The artists employed were legion and included many painters of the highest order, including Paul and John Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Stanley Spencer, as well as Edward Bawden, Tom Eckersley, Abram Games, Fred Taylor and, perhaps most importantly, Edward McKnight Kauffer, who almost singlehandedly raised the artistic level of commercial art in post-WW1 Britain. Developments in lithography also had a considerable effect on the production of all sorts of books published in the period 1920-50, but especially books for children, where publishers could produce larger, brilliantly colored and gently modulated picture books (such as Jean de Brunhoff’s The Story of Babar (1931), Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain (1935) and Kathleen Hale’s Orlando the Marmalade Cat series of books). Unique illustrative influences also came from abroad: from Poland, there was Lewitt-Him, two refugee artists who produced brilliant posters for the General Post Office and Kia-Ora in the 1940s and 1950s, designed exhibitions and created landmark children’s picture books such as Locomotive and The Football’s Revolt (1939) that were remarkably inventive and drew on surrealist and cubist sources, and used strange flattened perspectives, bright colors and abstract shapes. Stylized forms and flat colored surfaces were also evident in the Pere Castor books for children, which were illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky, published by Flammarion in Paris but originating from Russia. Such books displayed a completely new aesthetic and way of mass publishing which would go on to have a great influence on numerous series of books published for children before and during WW2, most notably the Puffin Picture Books. Despite restrictions during WW2, there were still excellent autolithographic illustrated books being produced for children by OUP, Faber and Faber, and Chatto & Windus, as well as propaganda poster campaigns such as the simple but humorous cartoons by Fougasse.
As a reaction to the austerity of the war years, some of the best post-war illustration work was produced for advertising campaigns as striking posters and booklets featuring humorous work by some of the greatest cartoonists of the period. One of the most significant was Guinness, which employed writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and A. P. Herbert, and graphic designers and cartoonists – among them Abram Games, Tom Eckersley, Gerard Hoffnung, Giles, Rowland Emett, and H. M. Bateman – to extol its beneficial health-giving powers. A similar advertising campaign had also got underway during the war at Ealing Film Studios and continued until its closure in 1959. Ealing films were quirky, whimsical, very “British,” and required a very particular style of graphic poster design, which often incorporated photographs of the film’s stars. Many of the country’s greatest artists worked on the posters, the rollcall here including Edward Bawden, James Boswell, Edward Ardizzone, Mervyn Peake, Barnett Freedman, John Piper, Ronald Searle and Michael Ayrton, and the company’s output of advertising material was one of the highpoints of British illustration.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, hand-drawn and painted illustration work for commercial use was subordinated to photographic images and led to a slow decline in the commissioning of new and exciting material. Magazines such as Radio Times, The Listener, Lilliput, and Punch, which had all given work to countless illustrators since the late 1920s, had started to err more towards the use of photography as illustration, and the only really exciting work being produced was for children’s books at OUP and Faber and Faber by painterly illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith, Victor Ambrus, Charles Keeping, and Errol Le Cain, for whom color, texture and pattern were as important as the essential narrative. However, it wasn’t really until the mid-90s when commercial illustration, which had lost its potency as a graphic medium for some years, was resurrected by Wallpaper magazine for editorial purposes.
What did you think of the current selection of illustration in 2018?
It is always fascinating to see the different styles, techniques and media used in commercial illustration, and to detect current trends that have been adopted across many different countries. The selection this year seemed, understandably, rather more politically oriented than perhaps in the past five years, with a great selection of cartoons of both Trump and Kim Jong Un in various apocalyptic scenarios, as well as illustrations that use tantalizing metaphorical imagery. The standard was remarkably high, and it was a great pleasure judging so much excellent work. Perhaps most interestingly, there seemed to be fewer digital illustrations than I expected and more hand-drawn and painted work, though I may well have been fooled!
What are your favorite illustrators in the past and now?
Oh! I think I may well have included all my favorite illustrators in Picture This, the exhibition I curated for the British Library in 2013, and which focused on 10 classic British children’s books and the ways in which different illustrators have illustrated the same text over the years. From the 19th century, some of Dickens’ illustrators, George Cruikshank and “Phiz”; John Tenniel, who illustrated Alice in Wonderland; and then an illustrator I rate above almost anyone else is Edmund J. Sullivan, followed closely by Mervyn Peake, Maurice Sendak, Austin Osman Spare, John Minton, C. Walter Hodges, Fritz Wegner, Lotte Reiniger and Faith Jaques, all of whom were superb black and white artists. I’m also passionate about the work of Errol Le Cain, Charles Keeping, Arne Ungermann, Roy Gerrard, Dr. Seuss, Reg Cartwright, John S. Goodall, Pauline Baynes, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, John Lawrence, Colin West, Ian Beck, and Angela Barrett, the latter four of whom I have the exquisite good fortune of counting as both good friends and mentors. All of the illustrators I’ve mentioned created (and continue to create) unique worlds in styles and techniques that I admire beyond anything else (except music!).
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would that be?
That’s a question I find hard to answer. I’m not sure if I’d really want to collaborate with another artist as we all have very different ways of creating work and at different paces. If I had the opportunity, I’d love to do something with David Hockney as I find much of his work mesmerizing. Or, if I could go back in time as a student, I’d relish the opportunity of being taught by Edmund J. Sullivan (1869-1933), who lectured in Lithography and Book Illustration at Goldsmiths College School of Art, where his students included Eric Fraser, Rowland Hilder, C. Walter Hodges, D. L. Mays, and Graham Sutherland. When I was 12, I first came across the very stark and visceral illustrations of Charles Keeping and decided then that I’d study with him but, sadly, he died aged 63 when I was 15, so that fantasy died with him. If I could bend the rules slightly, I’d enjoy collaborating with the British composer Jonathan Dove to create a hybrid piece of music with illustrations, or perhaps Philip Glass, both composers whose music I admire enormously.
Strangely, I ended up teaching myself how to draw and paint as I’ve never had any formal art training beyond school, mainly because I felt, as did my parents and school teachers, that “art,” or illustration, would happen if the passion continued (and, luckily, it’s still as strong as ever!).
How do you see the future of illustration as an artistic/commercial medium?
I’d like to think that illustration has a future as great as any other artistic medium. Certainly, people respond to work that’s creative and provides a story or a unique insight or slant on topical or universal themes. I’m sure digital work will eventually subsume physical work on paper or canvas and – hopefully – not at the expense of quality, although that depends on the artist’s proficiency with whatever software they’re handling. I’d like to say the future looks bright for us illustrators but, with so much uncertainty in the world, it’s hard to tell whether we’ll be around next week – let alone next year!