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.