Tuesday, 11 March 2008

What's the point of illustration?

This is a question I have asked myself many times - usually halfway through an illustration job. But I do think there is a point to illustration. Or at least there can be.

I'm talking here specifically about the illustration of books. There is a school of thought that says that as children get older they need less and less illustration; that they want to read books that look more like the books adults read. Pictures are for kids. Little kids that is.

I don't think this is true. I know it wasn't true for me. Illustrations attracted me to books when I was a child and also encouraged me to read. I have already said that Charles Keeping's illustrations pulled me through Rosemary Sutcliff's dense and complex prose. I have also stated that I loved comics as a boy - and still do. Books for older children do not have to be illustrated of course - but good illustration can make a good book exceptional. But I do not think this is restricted to children.

The astonishing illustrations of Harry Clarke were the lure to first read Edgar Allen Poe (whose work I first came to via Roger Corman movies). It was the illustrated covers of secondhand Penguin Modern Classics that introduced me to F Scott Fitgerald, Kakfa, Hemingway, Camus and all the other great writers who taught me how to be a human being.

Charles Dickens offered his publisher money to stop illustrating his work and illustrations can make something appear less serious. Not everything needs illustration. But I would say that everything can be illustrated.

Getting back to children, I think that there are a couple of areas where the illustration of fiction for older children can be actually be helpful. One is historical, the other fantasy. Historical because it can help the reader picture an alien historical period that they may have little prior knowledge of (Charles Keeping was a master of this, and so is Victor Ambrus). Fantasy for similar reasons - illustrations can help the reader to make an imaginary world more concrete. Good writing can do all this unaided of course. But good writing is not harmed by good illustration. The success of Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart's books show that there is a real appetite for copiously illustrated fantasy fiction whatever the age of the reader.

Another area that benefits from illustration is horror. David Roberts work for Uncle Montague's tales of Terror is a good example as are the illustrations by Francis Mosley for M R James' ghost stories for the Folio Society (incidentally Charles Keeping also illustrated those stories). The right illustrations work a little like music in a scary movie. They get the reader in the mood. And like all illustrations - they make the book a more desirable object. They make it special.

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