My Illustration Heroes. Part One: Sendak, Potter, Trnka, Bombová and Legkobit

Above: book cover by Ukranian illustrator Vyaceslav Legkobit

I wish that art wasn’t compartmentalised. I wish that every time I talk about making images for books… for their covers or their pages… I didn’t have to think so carefully about how to describe what I do. I know I’m not an illustrator. That description would be misleading, suggesting talents and experiences that I don’t possess. But I know within my chosen sphere, I have transferrable skills that serve me well enough to make a cover for a novel, or a vignette for a page of poems. Or make a picture-book. So I dance about when asked, and say I am a painter who sometimes makes book-covers. When being grandiloquent, I lay claim… particularly in relation to working with Marly Youmans, for whom I have made more covers and vignettes than any other author… to being an ‘illuminator’, because that suggests something different in terms of my ambition. Many of the artist/illustrators I most admire might be said to be illuminators inasmuch that they shed light on text, which is the quality I most aspire to.

My favourites? Well, the list has changed over the years, though some of the names remain constant. There are many artist/illustrators I greatly admire, Ardizonne, Bawden, and the contemporary Isabelle Vandenabeele being among them. But here I’m going to stick to the artists whose books are never far from my hand, and whose creations inspire me at every turn.

Maurice Sendak is a genius. A god, even, in book terms. His drawings for The Juniper Tree (in two volumes) are one of the great achievements of twentieth century book illustration.

Moreover he resolutely refused to talk down to children, knowing that they understood only too well the complexities of life, and that it was his duty to be emotionally truthful in his books for them.

So much of what I most admire is European in origin. Interestingly Sendak, searching for inspiration when preparing to make his images for The Juniper Tree, came to Europe because he wanted the German landscape to be present in the finished images, and the European illustration (and engraving) traditions, to underpin his version of the Grimm Brothers’ tales.

During the trip Sendak visited Wales, where he discovered in the Wye Valley a dramatic, conifer-wooded and mood-drenched landscape he recognised as being a spiritual equivalent of what he’d been searching for on the continent. Wales became, in part, a stand-in for what he’d sought in Germany, and his drawings made in the vicinity of Tintern Abbey were later referenced for the  Juniper Tree illustrations. In his diary of the time, he wrote “Use Wales for cheerfulness, Germany for gloom.”

In company with Sendak, Beatrix Potter, too, is a genius. Her characters are drawn with precision, and although they walk on their hind legs and dress in clothes, it would be a mistake to consider her sentimental.

Like Sendak, Potter is truthful. We have no doubt about the intentions of the sandy-whiskered gentleman toward Jemima Puddle-duck, and the black Berkshire pig, discovered by Pigling Bland in Mr Piperson’s farm, answers bluntly when Bland enquires why she was stolen, ‘Hams’!

There’s no getting around what Pig-wig knows to be the fate of her kind, and Potter doesn’t mislead the young readers. Read the stories again if you doubt me. It’s not just Potter’s illustrations which are works of genius. Her prose is glitteringly sharp. There’s not an extraneous word. She pares to the bone, and the stories are all the better for it. When I read Potter, I know I hear her true voice.

Jiri Trnka was a Czech artist, illustrator, puppet-builder and film-maker. He made images for countless books, and among my favourites are the two volumes he made for the publisher Paul Hamlyn of stories by Hans Anderson and the Grimms.

Both volumes are on my shelves in multiples, because they were published more than once, and some versions are better produced than others.

The cross-fertilisation between Trnka’s disciplines bring a compositional dynamic to his illustrations that enlivens the books. Moreover, he is a master of mixed media, which gives his illustrations a wonderful vitality.

An artist that few will be familiar with now, and I include her on the strength of a single book that I adore: Die Goldene Frau (The Golden Woman), published in 1972. Illustrator Viera Bombová was active principally in the 60s and 70s.

She won awards at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava in 1967 and 1969. Images for Die Goldene Frau are considered to be among her best, something I can’t verify, as it’s the only work of hers that I’ve seen. If you love illustration, find a second-hand copy of this book. There are plenty available online.

Vyaceslav Legkobit continues to be a mystery. I’ve written about him before at the Artlog, and by the time I’d finished that post, I knew considerably more than when I’d started. To put it baldly, he vanishes.

He vanishes from the worlds of publishing, and from any records I’ve been able to trace. That he’s highly regarded by so many artists and illustrators is phenomenal, given that there isn’t a massive body of work to examine. He caught something direct and universal in the fragile, paper-bound books that he produced images for, and it works as well today, as it did when freshly minted.

To be continued

18 thoughts on “My Illustration Heroes. Part One: Sendak, Potter, Trnka, Bombová and Legkobit

    • Beth, I’ve found my copy of the the book to be enormously inspiring in terms of what I like to look at when I’m working. (And I look at very little, taking pains to keep away from influences.) I noticed that Johann Rohl, too, when he was here for a month, had his nose buried in it a lot.

      I think there are monoprinting and collage techniques going on in the images, though outside some etching-like ‘resist’… or perhaps it’s sgrafitto used to make the fine white herringbone patterning that’s a signature of the book… there’s relatively little ‘drawing’. What impresses me enormously is the quality of abstraction. There’s a kind of ‘take it or leave it’ approach. Certainly nothing that feels as though the artist makes any attempts to be picturesque, or to ‘design’ her images and then construct them. The execution appears to be incredibly direct, as though she’s loosely cutting collage shapes from paper worked in mixed media, and then freely assembling them, improvising, fluidly creating and not getting bound-up with ‘making pictures’. Truth to tell, some of the very few illustrations I like least… and this is an illustration-rich volume… are the ones where she’s more obviously drawn them, whereas the best seem almost to have grown themselves.

      Highly recommended! Try Abebooks. Last time I looked there were tons of copies available, though mostly in Europe, so the expensive bit will be the postage.

  1. Great post, Clive! Beatrix Potter is a beloved favorite and I have recently been enjoying her beautiful mushroom investigations. A marvelous woman! And I adore the 60s-style illustrations of Bombova, Legkobit et al. Can’t wait for more!!!

  2. Many thanks for a terrific post. I didn’t know that about Sendak and the area around Tintern Abbey, even though I have more books by or about him than anyone else except perhaps Edward Gorey. Have you seen the interviews with Sendak on YouTube? There are quite a few and every one is a treasure!

    Illuminator is very good. Like you I find the distinctions nonsensical: in the end it’s all marks on paper.

  3. Wonderful, this post is real treasure, thank you Clive! It’s very inspiring seeing this work, I love all the artists you’ve mentioned, every one a genius. And I appreciate the thoughts you describe in your opening paragraph. I can’t believe we’re here in 2015 and that the compartmentalisation of the various visual art disciplines is still hanging in there, it seems such an old fashioned and out of date approach.

  4. What a veritable box of delights to open on a grey autumnal Sunday afternoon!!

    Maurice Sendak captured my imagination as a child and he has had a special place there ever since. Like you, I am drawn to Sendak because he understood that children are complex beings and that fantasy helps them come to terms with the world they are learning to navigate. He said: “It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

    I was first introduced to Viera Bombová and Vyaceslav Legkobit, thanks to the Artlog, and ‘Die Goldene Frau’ is now among my treasured collection of books. I do know Jiri Trnka’s work, but haven’t explored it in great depth, so that is definitely something for me to look forward to doing!

    Given the rich heritage that continues to inspires you, I know for sure that we are going to be in for a real treat with your own “Hansel & Gretel” picture book.

  5. Gorgeous posting. I have strong memories of borrowing books of Russian fairy tales, in translation, that often had original art work in it. Our local library was wonderful and had a fantastic collection of childrens’ books. This brought back fond imaginings.

    • Can there be libraries these days where vintage books for children line shelves alongside the new? Hard to imagine an enlightened realm where books illustrated by Jiri Trnka, by Viera Bombová and Vyaceslav Legkobit are stocked in the children’s section alongside the contemporary. If I ran a library, that’s what I would do. But then if I ran a toy shop, it would look like Gepetto’s workshop, so I think both my library and my toy shop are in the realms of fantasy!

      No wait. They exist, here at Ty Isaf!

      Ha ha!

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