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Laing Art Gallery exhibition showcases ten classic children's books and the people who illustrated them

A new exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery looks at how our favourite childhood books have been brought to life

What exactly does a hobbit look like? Or a borrower? What does Peter Pan wear when he’s nipping around Neverland? And how would you recognise Toad of Toad Hall?

The answers to all these questions might depend on your age – or on which edition of a famous book you got your hands on as a young reader.

This is clear in a new exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery featuring 10 classic children’s books from the 20th Century and the illustrators who have brought them to life for different generations.

Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics is the first touring exhibition from the British Library and this is its first stop – nearly 20 years after the Lindisfarne Gospels was loaned to the Laing by the same London institution.

Co-curator Tanya Kirk, from the British Library, said: “Our idea was to look at the great diversity of illustration in children’s books.

“We wanted to look at how it changed over the 20th Century and we decided to pick 10 really important children’s classics. All of them have been illustrated by at least three different people.

“We wanted it to be something that children and adults would enjoy.”

Tanya suggested the way the chosen books were illustrated determined how readers would visualise the characters thereafter.

The oldest book on show is the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling which was published in 1902 with illustrations by the author.

Kipling’s black and white silhouette-style illustration of one of the stories, The Elephant’s Child, or How the Elephant Got his Trunk, featured on the cover of the first edition and can be seen in the exhibition.

“We found these illustrations were so iconic that lots of more modern illustrators used a similar style,” said Tanya.

When Kenneth Grahame delivered his manuscript of The Wind in the Willows – published in 1908 – he insisted it would be impossible to illustrate.

“This is ironic because this is one of the most illustrated books ever,” said Tanya.

The first edition, though, appeared with no inside illustrations but with a gold figure of Pan, the Greek god of the wild, on the front cover – the work of Grahame’s friend, Graham Robertson

A rare copy can be seen in the exhibition along with subsequent, fabulously illustrated editions that make you wonder what the author was thinking.

It seems Grahame was keen for Arthur Rackham to tackle his story but the celebrated illustrator said he was too busy.

He finally agreed to do it in 1939, seven years after the author had died and when he himself didn’t have long to live.

“He was really ill and could only work for half an hour a day so it was a miracle he finished them,” said Tanya.

But she confessed that “the weirdest thing in the exhibition and also my favourite” was the edition illustrated in the 1940s by Paul Henning who photographed cuddly toys against makeshift backdrops.

“The toy he used for Ratty was really sinister,” she said. “But he only did two chapters.”

Paddington Bear was inspired by a teddy bear that author Michael Bond bought for his wife for Christmas. But illustrator Peggy Fortnum, now 95, went to study real bears at the zoo before producing the illustrations for the book which first came out in 1958.

In the 1980s illustrator David McKee had a go at Paddington and the character became teddyish again.

The exhibition also shows the relationship between books and films.

The Railway Children, by E (Edith) Nesbit, was first published in 1906 with illustrations by CE Brock.

Picture This: Children's Illustrated Classics at Laing Art Gallery, duty manager Mark Hunt with the Iron Man
Picture This: Children's Illustrated Classics at Laing Art Gallery, duty manager Mark Hunt with the Iron Man

But in 1970 came the film starring Jenny Agutter as ‘Bobbie’. It was a big hit.

“All the illustrators over the years have chosen to illustrate the same dramatic moments but after the film with Jenny Agutter you can see that people were a bit influenced by that,” said Tanya.

The same could be said of Peter Pan, who appeared in the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911 (illustrations by FD Bedford). After the the 1953 Disney film, said Tanya, he rarely appeared in print without a suit reminiscent of Robin Hood.

It hasn’t all been one way traffic. JRR Tolkien, no mean hand with pen and ink, provided his own illustrations for the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937.

But Alan Lee’s later watercolour illustrations of the book so impressed film director Peter Jackson that he gave him the job of concept artist on his The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The other books chosen for the exhibition are The Borrowers by Mary Norton (published in 1952), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (1968) and Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie (1911)

Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics runs from June 20 until September 27. There is an admission charge for people over 12 and details of an accompanying programme of family events are on www.laingartgallery.org.uk

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