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The Scrivener: The Best Pictures

…the drawing itself was not as I remembered it. Memory plays tricks. Perhaps we remember what we want to remember, and embellish it over the years…

The inimitable Brian Barratt delves into some of the illustrated books that he read when young and finds that things are not as memory says they were.

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In the 1940s, there was a pre-War set of Arthur Mee's 'The Children's Encyclopedia' in our family home in England. I loved browsing through its 7,384 pages. One particular drawing in the 'Ideas' section moved me and stayed in my mind. Over the years, I retained a clear memory of that picture and its caption. At least, I thought I did.

In about 1990, I found a set of all ten volumes of the encyclopedia in a secondhand bookshop for a mere $5 (what a bargain!) There, on page 112, was the picture I remembered so well. And it was different.

The caption confirmed the idea which I had kept in mind — 'For ever the winds blow, for ever the waters move: not for one moment since Creation have they been still'. But the drawing itself was not as I remembered it. Memory plays tricks. Perhaps we remember what we want to remember, and embellish it over the years.

I still have a set of stories by Charles Dickens retold for children, in eight small 32-page books. They cost me 4˝d (fourpence-halfpenny) each in the early 1940s. There is also a copy of 'Christmas Stories from Dickens', a Christmas present from my sister in 1947. All these books are illustrated in styles used in the 1940s. There is nothing wrong with the pictures but my memory tells me that, as a child, I did not approve of them — they were not 'right'.

I was already familiar with the drawings of George Cruikshank and 'Phiz' (Hablot K. Browne), who illustrated the first editions of the works of Dickens. Cruikshank's drawings from the 1830s are in 'Scenes of London Life', selected by J. B. Priestley from 'Sketches by Boz'. I bought that little book in 1948. Those drawings were 'right'.

But is all this of any consequence? Perhaps it is, insofar as it is tied up with the old myth that 'things were better when I was young'. Did I really dislike the 'modern' drawings when I was a little boy, or has that idea coloured my memory in subsequent years because I now prefer the whimsical Victorian pictures?

About 65 years ago, my mother gave me a copy of 'The House at Pooh Corner' by A. A. Milne. The illustrations — called decorations on the title page — are by Ernest H. Shepard. Older readers will sigh with nostalgia when they read that name.

Just as Cruikshank and 'Phiz' brought the Dickens characters to our eyes, so E. H. Shepard gave us Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Rabbit, Owl, and Eeyore. The books by A. A. Milne, with illustrations by E. H. Shepard, are still in print. There are also Disney versions of the stories. The cartoon illustrations appear on 'Winnie the Pooh — The Official Website', which is part of the Disney corporation. How sad.

The Disney illustrations do not seem to be 'right' — they fail to convey the period, idiosyncrasy, and whimsy of Milne's writing and Shepard's drawings. For instance, his simple portrayal of Eeyore gloomily saying, 'It's snowing still', and his tiny sketches of Piglet putting an acorn in a hole perfectly complement A. A. Milne's words.

Shepard also illustrated Kenneth Grahame's 'Wind in the Willows' and, once again, helped to define the characters which some of us hold dear. But are we then to say that his drawings are 'right'? Recent editions of the 'Wind in the Willows' have superb illustrations by Robert Ingpen, an Australian artist, and Inga Moore, an English artist, who seem to respect the words they are dealing with.

In the end, of course, it's a matter of personal taste. In the 1940s, perhaps I did not like the 'modern' illustrations of Dickens. Likewise, present-day children probably would not like the early Cruikshank and Phiz drawings. The Shepard drawings in 'The House at Pooh Corner' were the only ones I knew. They stayed not only in memory but also in the actual book which is here, next to me, as I write.

Maybe we can link 'things were better when I was young' with 'I don't know anything about Art but I know what I like'. We feel safe in what is familiar. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to venture into the world of imagination.

'Christopher Robin had spent the morning indoors going to Africa and back, and he had just got off the boat and was wondering what it was like outside, when who should come knocking at the door but Eeyore.'

Perhaps the best pictures are in the mind.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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