My Illustration Heroes. Part Three: Weisgard and Tokmakov

Leonard Weisgard was an American illustrator much-loved by all those raised on copies of the books he produced in the iconic Golden series. Weisgard had a talent for capturing ‘spirit of place’. In Pantaloon (1951), a black poodle aspires to be a baker, and the illustrations have a Gallic charm leaving me yearning for the patisseries of Paris… their windows crammed with artfully mouth-watering displays… for pavement cafés, the morning  scent of fresh bread from the many boulangeries, and for a soundtrack of Maurice Chevalier!

In his images for Mr Peaceable Paints, published in 1956, Weisgard employs the idiom of American folk art to capture the toy-town colonial vistas of red brick and white-painted clapperboard.

The vivacity of his colours in the Mr Peaceable illustrations is a delight. He brings the same attentive eye to his contemporary subjects, populating the seaside community of Pelican Here, Pelican There (see below) with fishermen, a painter and decorator on a ladder, and even an artist at an easel on the beach. (It’s an idyll that Hitchcock subverted so mischievously in his ‘nature-attacks-man’ chiller, The Birds, and Weisgard’s charming coastal scene has a touch of the fictitious ‘Bodega Bay’ about it.)

Below: Pelican Here, Pelican There, 1948

I acquired a copy of Pelican Here, Pelican There some years ago, having long admired the illustrations in it. The artist has a marvellous skill for simplifying town and landscape into flat planes, inviting the viewer to walk around the buildings and terrain by using a forced-perspective, elevated viewpoint. I never saw the illustrations when I was a child, but I know that I would have loved and studied them endlessly, imagining myself in them. They become both views and maps.

I have one book by the Russian illustrator, Lev Tomakov, and it’s his Fairy Tales About Animals, published in 1973.

Although Tomakov adopted different styles for the many books he produced, there is an underlying calligraphic fluency to his best images. Judging from the flat, opaque brilliance of his colours, I imagine that he worked in gouache, loading brushes with multiple colours to make single, deft, thereafter unmediated strokes. There is a delight taken in the simple arabesques of the wolf’s legs in the image below, and no less delight taken in the single hairs fringing his tail, painted dark against light and light against dark.

Tomakov’s sense of design may be formal, but the spirit of fun in the fox eyeing up a  grouse on top of a conifer tree, or a cat someone has rubbed up the wrong way,  is unbridled.

Likewise a fox curled in its’ den in the void beneath a sawn-off tree, while almost abstract in approach, is compelling in the use of shape and space. We’re invited in by the artist, who has cut the den in half to afford us a view. I love the way the tail pokes out above ground, like an exotic bottlebrush plant.

Tomakov’s fluency with brush and paint means that even the simplest of page decorations become intensely beautiful.

A goat is conjured out of disconnected shapes, each one pleasing, and a tabby-cat rides it using the horns like the handlebars of a Vespa! Swift, shimmering, inspired. The work of a master.

19 thoughts on “My Illustration Heroes. Part Three: Weisgard and Tokmakov

  1. Well! Good mid-morning from MS. USA. Another excellent individual with wide interests in the arts, literature, puppets and more makes a very good day for me. My husband is a minister, and cannot for the life of him can he come up with my absurd interest in “creativity.” But looking at this wonderful web posting-which I found a few days ago looking at some subject, must let you know how wonderful the postings are for an area that has been my favorite from childhood. Mrs. atk

  2. I love the work of Leonard Weisgard, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading the reasons why you rate him as one of your illustration heroes, as it has made me look at his work with fresh eyes, which has been a real treat. Well done on tracking down “Mr Peaceable Paints”, as it looks an absolute delight!!

    I hope you and Laura are successful in establishing a family link, as it seems you already share similar tastes in common, which is a very good start! (-:

  3. I’m enjoying these posts so much…..but it makes me buy more books….I’d ask you to stop for my bank balance’s sake, Clive, but I really don’t want you to! Today I’m awaiting delivery of Little Big Books – I can’t remember if you mentioned it here or if I saw it somewhere else but it looks great. Someone posted a clip on Amazon of the book being slowly flipped through – gosh, it looks great!

    On illustration generally – I remember that at art school the illustration course was considered barely better than ‘dreaded’ graphics in terms of being demeaned by the ‘top of the pile’…the painters. I really do wonder why?

    • ‘Little Big Books’ is full of treasures. You’re in for a treat. I’d be interested to see your ‘favourites’ list from it.

      I hate the hierarchies. I look at the work of Mervyn Peake and I see the work of an artist. That he ‘drew’, rather than painted (and moreover drew beautifully) does not diminish his skill, nor is it diminished by the fact that he drew to illustrate books. I know plenty of ‘painters’ who wouldn’t know how to begin to illustrate a book. And of course, there are illustrators who to my eyes are not terribly good, or are at best mediocre. (Not that my opinion amounts to anything.)

      But when the art is beautiful, it doesn’t matter a fig to me whether the person who made it is labelled ‘painter’ or ‘illustrator’. I just enjoy what I’m looking at.

  4. I’ve ordered a “good” copy for just a few dollars, so my fingers are crossed, too! All my Hickses and Jenkinses were Quaker folks who came from Wales, converting either before or, in some cases, I think, after arriving here. Edward was the younger cousin of Elias Hicks, who created a great division in Quaker practice in the early 1800s. My group are Hicksites even now. My aunt had one of Edward’s beautiful paintings, given by the artist, but it now hangs in the (U.S.) National Gallery. However, I digress! Really enjoying the fine talk of illustrators–always a favorite topic of mine. Keep up the good work, ‘cousin’ Clive, and perhaps we will find a family link someday!

  5. I have not been able to write lately, and just wanted to say I still come, and read, and learn, and enjoy.
    And the moment I feel like myself again, I shall go treasure hunting for these beautiful illustrated books. I knew Beatrix Potter, and Sendak, and of course the classics of my youth: Rackham and Gustave Doré

    Now that I have small grandchildren who are just beginning to read, there are quite a few great illustrators for them. But it is great to have illustrate books for adults as well. I would love to have an illustrated ‘Complete Oscar Wilde’, for instance.

    Thank you. Love

    • Dear Maria, I was so saddened to hear that you had broken your wrist.

      I know you are an ardent visitor to the Artlog, and I have missed your comments. When you wrote… and copied me in to your e-mail to Sarah and Jeffrey… I realised why you had not been leaving any recently. Did you receive my reply?

      I too grew up on Rackham, and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a much loved, though now sadly dog-eared volume on my shelves.

      Good luck with the book hunt. If you find some of the artists I’ve recommended, then I hope you will enjoy their work as much as I do. Let me know if there are any you have trouble with finding, and I will see whether I can help.

      • Thank you Clive.
        I have to be patient for a while yet, but I’ve been told today that I will not need an operation, and I’ve been given the go ahead to begin having a little bit of a life again.

        Tomorrow I begin my book hunt.

  6. Wonderful, as usual! I’m hoping that the Mr. Peaceable in question might be Edward Hicks, and I’ve just ordered a copy of this obviously charming volume. Any relation, Clive? My great-great-grandfather gave the eulogy for Edward–or it may have been Elias. The book that would tell me is at my sister’s house just now… I’ve many Jenkins forebears, and the Hickses are cousins of my cousins, too… 😉

    • Laura, I love the work of Edward Hicks. I can’t say whether he was the artist Weisgard had in mind, though the link of the title to a famous painting by E. H. seems to point that way. I know the book only from images I’ve seen online, as I haven’t yet found a copy in the UK. I shall keep looking.

      If your great-great grandfather really gave Edward Hicks’ eulogy, that’s a seriously interesting connection to your family.

      Peter and I have recently returned from the Scilly Isles, where we discovered that Jenkins and Hicks are the most common names found among the islanders, and here I am with both of ’em hitched!

      I’d be very happy to hear that you and I are related in some way. What a lark that would be. But the reality is that I know very little about my family history, as both my parents were a tad secretive, my mother particularly so.

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