Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Literary Alphabet: I is for Illustration

With little ones in our family again, I’ve been seeing familiar sights long buried in my memory. Toys I played with, tiny woollen mittens I used to wear and books which were once read to me. Looking over beloved storybooks, I realised how powerful illustration is to the mind. Illustrations are iconic to our memory– think Mr. Happy, The Snowman and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Whilst the words may be lost between the pages of our ever-growing brain, the image remains long after we have put childish things away.

Illustration naturally reminds us of our childhood books but there are occasions when we grown-ups can enjoy this symphony between word and image too. Try Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle with spell bounding illustrations by Chris Riddle or the brilliant Life Portrait series which tells the life stories of iconic women via drawings. I just love the engravings that appear alongside the text in Victorian novels. These illustrations depict a key moment within the text. The artist must convey hundreds of words in one picture. Rightly or wrongly, those illustrations stay with us as we read. They shape our impression of a character or situation strongly.

Illustrators have a lot of responsibility – like us, they must process the text and conjure up a corresponding image in their minds. But then they take the additional step of putting that image onto paper. Their image can become, or even replace our own. George Du Maurier, Victorian illustrator (and father of Daphne), believed there were two types of readers: the reader ‘who visualises what he reads with the mind's eye, unconsciously, perhaps, and without effort, but in a manner so satisfactory to himself that he wants the help of no picture’ and those who do ‘not possess this gift’. The latter type is who, Du Maurier believed, the illustrator is there to serve. He compares it to theatre – the action can unfold visually before us without any need for our imagination.

I think this underestimates both the reader and the power of pictures. I prefer thinking of illustrations as cues, or keys that can unlock our imagination. We can take the illustrated image and let our imagination run with it. When illustrators get it right, their drawings can be masterful suggestions to our imaginations. If books are there to transport us, illustrations sure can help us on our way.

Catch up with more in my Literary Alphabet series here.
Do you love illustration? What does it mean for you? Do leave a comment below!  


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