Illustration - Winter 2015 - Issue 46

Nostalgia is a strong emotion – which makes it a powerful tool for artists – but in an issue where we look at the idyllic depictions of Britain created by Beatrix Potter and, 50 years later, Stanley Roy Badmin, we should be wary of romanticising these seductive images. Potter’s soft watercolours are based on an intimate knowledge of animal anatomy and of the realities of rural life in the Lake District – Peter Rabbit’s father, after all, ended up in Mrs McGregor’s pie. Badmin, meanwhile, created the defining vision of Britain for a generation of children in the mid-20th century, who read his Puffin Picture Books, and for their parents who bought his postcards and saw his posters. However, his illustrations reflected their times – they were credited with helping urban evacuees understand the countryside – and some of the rosy glow that we feel now when we see them comes from our own need to recall a more rural and idyllic past. It is said that each generation creates a myth of a golden age that existed around 50 years before and that may be influencing the current fashion for images of Britain by artists such as Badmin and Ravilious and their simpler, “safer” world (try telling that to the war generation).             
Similarly, the work of Arthur Boyd Houghton could well reinforce the impression that Victorian illustrators idealised childhood. Yet, look beyond his sentimental family portraits and there are glimpses of a more sinister backdrop, with frightening parlour games and the shadows of nightmares behind doors. Houghton’s images of childhood may have been viewed sentimentally by adults, but the children themselves aren’t necessarily enjoying it. Good illustration, often more than fine art, captures the concerns of the time as well as its superficial appearances – buildings and costumes. But we need to be aware of the seductive mists that can bathe the work of illustrators in a golden haze of nostalgia if we want to appreciate fully what their authors really achieved.

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