Our new series from Quentin Blake celebrates some of the finest graphic artists in history.
What does it take to tell a story in pictures? To capture the quirks of a character in watercolor, or lay out a landscape with the flick of a pen? In an exclusive new series with Thames & Hudson, Quentin Blake celebrates the power of illustration as a vital, varied, and defining art form that gives visual reality to so much of our learning and our lives — from first picture books to favorite animations, from teenage comics to political cartoons.
We grow up with these indelible images, and yet all too often, we know little about the talents that created them. The inaugural editions of The Illustratorsseries celebrate the artists Ludwig Bemelmans and Posy Simmonds.
Over more than fifty years, Posy Simmonds has become one of Britain’s best-known satirical cartoonists, as well as a pioneer of graphic novels and progressive female characters.
A witness and critic of contemporary society, Simmonds’ early column on the Guardian’s women’s page developed different storylines and relatable characters to gently chronicle political and societal trends. Her approach to caricature avoids exaggeration and cruelty, with a degree of built-in empathy in her method: facing Simmonds above her drawing board hangs a large mirror in which she can herself pose as her own model for expressions and gestures.
Simmonds honed her skills in lengthier narrative through a series of children’s picture book commissions, with a particular interest in meaningful themes and messages. “They have got to have something true in them,” says Simmonds, “however much is wrapped up in fantasy.”
In 1981, Simmonds’ book True Love was Britain’s first graphic novel. Later, her ‘Literary Life’ column in the Guardian’s Saturday Book Review supplement planted the seeds for a second — Tamara Drewe, a tale set in an upmarket writers’ retreat with fragile egos and unruly libidos centre stage.
Last year, she published another, Cassandra Darke, a loose reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Dickens’s muttering male misanthropist recast as an elderly female art dealer. A darkly humorous tale, the book – like much of Simmonds’ career —pushes the boundaries of conventional female characterization: “I’ve always thought that women really aren’t allowed to be total rotters,” she has said. “There certainly aren’t many like Scrooge, who are permitted to be self-obsessed and mean and not sorry for themselves – who are comfortable in their aloofness from life in the way that he is.”
Ludwig Bemelmans grew up in the Austro-Hungarian empire and emigrated to the United States in his late teens, just escaping the outbreak of the First World War. He is best known for Madeline, the series he wrote and illustrated about the daily adventures of seven-year-old Madeline in Paris.
First published in 1939, Madeline today is a global franchise and international childhood classic. The original story has sold over 14 million copies and been translated into language as diverse as Afrikaans, Japanese, and Swahili.
Beyond Madeline, much of Bemelmans’ his work was intended for adults, not least the evocation of luxury travel. After his arrival in the United States, the artist found work as a busboy at the Ritz Carlton, and with it a ‘tankful of fish’ to inspire his art in the hotel staff and clientele.
His style has the air of the impromptu, as if fitting to lives on the move, and it was precisely this kind of spontaneity that Bemelmans strived so hard to achieve. He would often throw out several versions of his drawings until he felt he had the right energetic presence on the page.
Later, following his foray into children’s books and the great success of Madeline, Bemelmans won increasing commissions from magazines. His ability to both write and draw served him particularly well on travel assignments, with editors appreciating his ability to weave social commentary, glamour, and humour into a vivid distillation of place.
Bemelmans also produced more than thirty covers for the New Yorker– extraordinary in their variety and dynamism: a traffic jam in Paris, a line of chefs at work, or skiers creating a graphic crisscross in the snow.
Bemelmans recognized that his enduring legacy would be the Madelineseries, but in all his work, what stands out is a passionate engagement with the world. For Bemelmans, the portrait of life was the most important work of the artist, and it was only good “when you’ve seen it, when you’ve touched it, when you know it. Then you can breathe life onto canvas and paper.”
Words by Eliza Apperly
Find more in The Illustrators, a new series curated by Quentin Blake, celebrating illustration as an art form.