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

the mystery of vyaceslav legkobit

Judging by the frequency with which images from Everyone Likes to Draw by the Ukranian illustrator Vyaceslav Legkobit turn up on blogs, they must be a favourite of artists, graphic designers, illustrators and people who enjoy vintage children’s books. It was originally published in 1968, though my copy in English dates from 1975.

It’s not hard to see why so many people, adults and children alike, are attracted to Legkobit’s images. His illustrations have a confidence and swiftness indicating an artist steeped in the folk-art traditions of his country, to the point where the pages seem not so much to be designed, as to have sprung from a world where things just look that way. That ease of creating a complete and plausible imaginative universe can only come when an artist/illustrator has skills honed to perfection. The positive and negative shapes in these illustrations are masterful, making the images hover somewhere between narrative and sheer pattern. Colour lends them theatricality. All those plushy reds, vibrant blues and sunny yellows make me smile. The books are flimsy, slender paperbacks, and it’s a testament to how much they were loved that they’re still around, evidently treasured by generations of readers. I know that had I seen these when I was a child, the illustrations would have been a great encouragement to get busy with my crayons and paints. Their apparent effortlessness isn’t off-putting to fledgling painters, who can get started  by the age-old tradition of copying.

The internet yields relatively little about Legkobit beyond his nationality and the fact that he was born in 1941, and I find the absence of information to be remarkable given how well-loved his images are. It seems unlikely that he’s still alive and illustrating, as the cut-off point of his work seems to be prior to 1980.

I have another book by the artist, dated 1975. Just a glance at the cover makes me hear the music of Stravinsky!

Above and below: two of my favourite Legkobit illustrations. Perfect combinations of form, colour, pattern and character.

I’ve found Svetlana Skryabina’s HanaRivka Etsy shop to be an excellent source of Russian children’s books. Svetlana is knowledgeable on her subject, as can be seen in her excellent blog. Moreover parcels from her arrive promptly and the books are always as she describes.


My thanks to Svetlana Skryabina, who guided me to a Russian site that has some information, though there is nothing beyond 1978.

Legkobit was born in 1941 in the vicinity of Kiev. His parents died during the war and he was thereafter raised by a family who gave him his surname. In 1964 he studied at the Faculty of Graphic Art at the Kiev Art Institute. He is described as an illustrator and animator, his output listed as ‘picture books with his own text’, ‘children’s magazines’ and ‘illustrations for children’s poems’. In an article dated 1971 he explains that his time at art school was quite brief, followed by three years of drawing ‘art cartoons’ and making drawings for children’s magazines and books. He also says that he doesn’t yet know whether he’s exclusively a ‘children’s artist’, but he definitely ‘draws for kids like me’. He sounds very likeable and open to where his art might carry him. A comment has been left on the site by ‘Igor’, who writes that his parents knew the artist. Igor fills in a few tantalising details. It seems that Legkobit was married to a woman named Svetlana. The couple lived on the 16th floor of an apartment block, and they had no children. The marriage failed, there was a divorce and it seems Legkobit may have suffered a ‘creative crisis’. Igor ends by saying that he remembers the artist’s wonderful smile. And we can see that he did indeed have a lovely smile, because unexpectedly for a man so shrouded in mysteries, there’s a photograph: