Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.