One of the curious truths about many of the more popular authors of children’s books is that they often didn’t like children. They also rarely collaborated with the people who would later go on to illustrate their books for them.

While we are told that the written word should in of itself fire up the imagination, children’s books still tend to come with some sort of illustration in them to assist the young reader — and many of those illustrations go onto become classics in their own right.

A new exhibition has opened in the British Library dedicated to a few of those classics. The definition of a classic in this case being a book that has been reprinted several times with different illustrators.

As fashions and tastes change, so do the choices of illustrators down the years. The early Paddington Bear does not look how many people today probably imagine him.

Amusingly, the original bear was based on a real Malaysian Sun Bear in London Zoo, even though Paddington hails from darkest Peru.

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Autograph printer’s copy of ‘The Elephant’s Child’, Just So Stories. Illustrations by Rudyard Kipling © British Library Board

Curiously, I can only say I have read two of the ten books on display — possibly my overseas upbringing didn’t expose me to British culture quite as much? However, I was an avid fan of The Hobbit, even though I read it after the Lord of the Rings, and may have been very lucky to buy one of the last batches that were printed with the original JR Tolkiein artwork.

A simple black and white form of dark illustrations that seem oddly to fit the older almost Medieval language of the book.

Of course, people of a certain age will probably see the Hobbit through the memories of a slow loading graphic on a 1980s computer and Thorin sitting around singing incessantly about gold.

Although today Quentin Blake is the de-facto illustrator for Roald Dahl books, he wasn’t always so, and some earlier prints are on display. In fact, as was mentioned by the curator, having a single illustrator’s style so strongly tied with an author can be problematic as it makes it harder for later artists to “update” the book for a new generation.

If, unlike me, you were brought up with these books, then it will be probably quite a nostalgic look back at your childhood, and a revelation to see how other generations imagined ratty, mole, peter pan or the iron man.

The exhibition is free and open until the end of next January — in the upper floor behind the reception desk.

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On display:

  • The Just So Stories
  • The Railway Children
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • The Secret Garden
  • Peter Pan and Wendy
  • The Hobbit
  • The Borrowers
  • Paddington Bear
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • The Iron Man

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One comment
  1. Greg Tingey says:

    I have not read any of the last four!
    I suspect missing out on the Dahl has been a mistake.

    No Rev. Awdrey? Suprising, given there have, in fact, been several illustrators.

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