Beauty looks pensive clutching flowers in her hand, her dress and hair billowing in the wind. At her side looms the magical Beast as a dark green hedge. On the left a stone sculpture with a head of pink roses appears uncannily lifelike. Nothing is as it seems. The dreamy palette of greens evokes a landscape and atmosphere of quietude yet there is tension as if on the cusp of danger. It is a tale as old as time, and Angela Barrett’s rendering of Beauty and the Beast is enchanting. Ethereal. Her delicate brushstrokes of light and shade lend elegance and her pictures poignancy, to a story about love and loss. Richly allusive Beauty Runs Across the Garden is the front cover artwork of a classic fairy-tale retold by Max Eilenberg, whose moving prose touched my heart. I am thrilled it resides in my home.
At the top end of Bury Street in St James’s, lies Illustrationcupboard Gallery, an art gallery devoted to pictures of the most fantastic kind. Even before you step in you can sense something wonderful is about to happen. It is like walking into a storybook - a place full of colour and imagination. Nestled among private gentlemen clubs and posh clothiers, it is unlike the numerous haughty and hardened galleries found in this gentrified area of London. It is an intimate, inviting space. The glass exterior allows daylight to illuminate the tiers of storied artwork that glitter and glide effortlessly along the walls. Your eyes cannot help but dart from one picture to another, greedily absorbing the visual sensations contained within each golden frame. The pictures weave a sort of magic that engages both the heart and mind, and the welcoming staff ensures a pleasurable experience for every visitor.
My encounter with contemporary book illustrations began a year ago at this delightful emporium, a stone’s throw away from Christie’s where I work. With a passion for reading since childhood, combined with a love for beautiful things, this genre of art appealed to my sensibilities. Drawn from narrative, illustrations bring the written word to life. It is collaboration between text and image. They elucidate a story, enriching the reader’s experience giving rise to a wealth of meaning. And so began a love affair with Illustration Art, which, over the course of a year resulted in me collecting ten works by some of the most distinguished English artists.
As a jewellery specialist it was inevitable that the lapis blue in The Children Read by Jane Ray from the book of The Lost Happy Endings first caught my eye. It is a celestial colour. In the picture the nightscape is dotted with gold stars just as the lapis stone is found with gold flecks on its surface. That ultramarine blue reminds me so much of my time as a student in the History of Art. Nostalgia. It became my first purchase. The work is a compact composition of rooftops and houses lit under a night sky and bright moon, and in a contemplative moment I can almost hear the children by the windows.
Another jewel-like illustration I love is Playing Cards Painting Roses Red by John Vernon Lord for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is a small image – a miniature, which makes it all the more exquisite. There is something about Lord’s accurate drawing which appeals to my methodical side. The roses delineated in black ink are like the sharp facets of a diamond. Their luscious Pigeon’s Blood hue and drops of ruby-red paint appear to spill over the picture’s threshold. There is a mathematical precision in the artist’s treatment of this subject, yet the world he depicts is a dizzy one. It is contradictory yet beguiling. Dimensions are warped and realities interchangeable. In Alice’s world the cards speak, the croquet balls are hedgehogs and I can walk Through the Looking Glass.
I was lucky to have met some of these award-winning illustrators. Among them David McKee, whose creation of Mr Benn stole my heart. Mr Benn is a well-dressed bowler-hat Englishman - a respectable old-fashioned character whom I find so endearing. Each day he ambles into a fancy dress shop and changes into a different costume to embark on marvellous adventures. The stories are simple and charming. But it is Mr Benn’s sense of morality which resonates having parents who instilled deep values in me from a young age. 007 Benn is Mr Benn dressed in a smart suit as the world’s best-loved spy - James Bond. He is seen in the changing room of the costume shop in all his bravado, holding a gun. I especially love the artist’s depiction of Mr Benn’s multiple reflections in the mirrors. They are like the innumerable prisms of an immense and exquisitely chiselled diamond. It is swagger, a type of cool only an artist like McKee can portray without coming across too cocksure.
John Vernon Lord, a giant in this field, tells us that the purpose of illustration, “... is to enlighten”. From my first picture to this personal reflection the journey has been one of wonder and discovery. If you know John Huddy, proprietor of Illustrationcupboard Gallery, then access to the gallery’s lower ground may be granted, where a rich reservoir of pictures is kept. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to view some of the most exquisite original illustration artwork in this secret chamber. John’s unerring instinct, aesthetic sense and free-flowing thoughts have guided me through this exciting area of collecting. But at the heart of his business is a deep appreciation and conviction for the art he handles. Illustrations illuminate. They offer clarity, allowing us to grasp their stories with heightened awareness and pleasure. Like Giotto’s biblical frescoes in the Arena Chapel it is the art of story-telling in pictures. They elevate our thoughts and fuel our dreams, for the most valuable things in life are those which you cannot see. In their stillness they capture that single moment for eternity. And that is enchanting.
-- Words by Mei Y Giam.