Escape to Wonderland: A History of Children's Book Illustration

PUBLISHED: 11:06 30 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:21 20 February 2013

Escape to Wonderland: A History of Children’s Book Illustration

Escape to Wonderland: A History of Children’s Book Illustration

Some of the country's best-known children's illustrators have been brought together at The Lightbox in Woking for one of the biggest exhibitions of its kind ever held

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2010

Some of the countrys best-known childrens illustrators have been brought together at The Lightbox in Woking for one of the biggest exhibitions of its kind ever held and now its been given a festive twist with some of our favourite winter storybook characters joining the party. Caroline Harrap pays a visit

Escape to Wonderland: A History of Childrens Book Illustration runs at
The Lightbox in Woking until Sunday January 2, 2011. Admission is free. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am-5pm, and Sunday 11am-5pm. Tel: 01483 737800 /

STEP through the doors of The Lightbox in Woking and you could be forgiven for thinking youd strayed into some magical land.

For everywhere you look are the familiar storybook characters that were so much a part of all our childhoods from Rupert the Bear and Babar the Elephant to Captain Pugwash, to name but a few old friends brought back to life for a few precious weeks.

The wonderful thing about this exhibition is that it really does appeal to all ages, says the director of The Lightbox, Marilyn Scott, who is also the curator of Escape to Wonderland.

Because its a history of childrens book illustration, from the 19th Century right through to the present day, this means that there is something for everyone.

For young children, theres all the contemporary storybook characters; then the parents get to see all their favourites from the Sixties and Seventies; while grandparents will be familiar with the illustrations from the time of the Second World War.

Its lovely to be holding an exhibition that appeals to all generations.

From Miffy to Mog...
Featuring original works of art by many of Britains best-known childrens illustrators from the much-loved Arthur Rackham to the creator of The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, to the man behind such famous characters as Mr Benn, King Rollo and Elmer the Elephant, David McKee this is one of the biggest displays of childrens illustrations ever to be assembled in this country.

Among the many other well-known characters making an appearance in the exhibition are Alice in Wonderland, Noddy, Postman Pat, Angelina Ballerina, Charlie and Lola, Tracy Beaker, Mog, Miffy and many more.

Needless to say, the exhibition has caused quite a stir in the art world nationally, and its a credit to Marilyn and her team that they have managed to pull together such a prestigious display of work in a regional gallery.

I did have to call in a few favours, laughs Marilyn. Altogether, we have borrowed artwork from about 30 lenders in all including from other galleries, private collectors and several of the illustrators themselves, such as Quentin Blake, who lent us a number of works from his own collection.

Its quite hard at the start because you have to convince people what its going to be like, when its all still just a vision in your head!

But everyone has been so wonderful, especially all the illustrators who are so passionate about what they do, and tend to feel they are not very well represented in galleries across the country. Some of them have even given up their time to come and hold talks and workshops during the exhibition.

As well as the one hundred or so works of art in the show, many of which are displayed in three-metre high giant storybooks, there are life-sized models of our favourite characters, too and thats not all.

We didnt want the exhibition to only be about books and illustrations, so we have made it really interactive, says Marilyn. For example, there are lots of film clips, too, where we have interviewed a number of the illustrators about their work and their processes.

So, where they draw their inspiration from, how authors and illustrators work together to create their famous characters and which mediums they like to use to get the best effect etc.

We also have these wonderful 'story bags for children, each based on a different character, containing a storybook, games and puzzles for them to do and dressing-up stuff for example, the Angelina Ballerina one contains a tutu!

And in the shop, we also have a whole new section dedicated to the exhibition, which features books, games, soft toys, tins and pencil cases etc, as well as books on how to do your own story illustrations it really is an absolute treasure trove for Christmas gifts.

And with Christmas just around the corner, the exhibition has been given a new festive twist, too, with some of our best-loved winter-time storybook characters joining in the fun.

The Snowman et al...
We were very keen to be able to keep the exhibition running right up until Christmas, as we felt it really lent itself well to this time of year, says Marilyn. So we decided to create a whole new section that will hopefully encourage people who have been before to come back and visit again.

We have added in some lovely Christmas themed pieces including, among others, original film artwork from The Snowman by Raymond Briggs plus special edition china as well as characters from The Nutcracker and even Father Christmas himself!

And if she had to choose her own personal favourite in the exhibition, what would it be or would that be akin to picking a favourite child?

Hmmm, she muses. I do love everything in the exhibition, but I suppose if I had to choose one thing, it would be the collection of Ladybird books, which date from World War Two right up to the 1980s.

You certainly cant beat those for a bit of nostalgia!

And now, without further ado, turn over the page and join us on an enchanting journey as we meet just a few of the illustrators taking part from the countrys most famous artists to
up-and-coming new Surrey talent...

David McKee
As the creator of Mr Benn, King Rollo and Elmer the Elephant, David McKee is one of the UKs best-loved illustrators. Now dividing his time between London and Paris, he is proud to be a patron of the Escape to Wonderland exhibition, which also features an original illustration from his latest Elmer book

The exhibition could rival any in a national art gallery. You must be delighted with how it came together?
I think they have really done themselves proud at The Lightbox with this wonderful exhibition, which includes some of the countrys finest illustrators. And Im so pleased that they have been courageous enough to put it on for a good length of time, too.

I love The Lightbox, by the way its really impressive. It looks great, feels great even down to the bar! When I was there last week to give a talk, I was also so impressed by the enthusiasm and professionalism of everybody I met. I think you people in Surrey are very lucky to have such a lovely gallery!

And the show features a work from your latest book, Elmer and Papa Red, which is just out for Christmas?
Yes, its Elmer who pays the bills really! As well as the book that has just come out, which is a sort of parody of Christmas, Im already working on the next Elmer book, which is all about superheroes! That one should be out around this time next year.

Its the 40th anniversary of the Mr Benn TV series next year. Will you be doing anything special for that?
Hopefully, well do something, though Im not sure if it will be an exhibition. Unfortunately, hardly any of the original artwork from the TV series survived. I didnt have enough storage space back then, so I threw most of it into a skip!

However, the original Mr Benn books are just in the throes of being republished. The first one, Big Top Benn, has just come out, and the intention is to publish the other three over the next year or so. I would really like to revisit Mr Benn actually, and I do have more stories I have one about Robin Hood, for example, but theres so much going on just now with other things

I also have an exhibition of oil paintings coming up in London in March of next year, so Im working towards that, then theres the new Elmer book, and various charity things as well, so well see!

Why should readers make the effort to come and see the exhibition?
Books are so important in our lives and childrens books, and especially picture books, are what starts our enthusiasm for reading. Without picture books, the adult authors wouldnt have an audience. This exhibition is beautifully presented, very rewarding and absolutely worth making the trip to see it.

And, finally, how will you be spending Christmas day this year?
Its always a bit complicated getting all the family together, being spread out as we are over different countries, but well be in Paris with some of them this year, and no doubt well all go out for a nice lunch.

Helen Craig
One of the best-known characters from todays childrens books, Angelina Ballerina is famous the world over. Artist Helen Craig, who lives in Cambridge, reveals why she was delighted to take part in this landmark exhibition

So where did the inspiration for Angelina Ballerina first come from?
Before I started the first Angelina book, I had been doing some little ABC books using mice. I like to do pictures that go into an imaginary world so dont always want to use humans. Mice lend themselves to all sorts of situations. They have expressive hands and go on their hind legs. They also have tails and whiskers that can show all sorts of emotions.

And are you working on any new Angelina books at the moment?
I am working on the fourteenth Angelina book. Katharine Holabird has written a story where Angelina goes with her friends and her dancing teacher Miss Lilly on a dancing tour across Mouseland. They get caught in a storm and lose their scenery and have to find a way to get some more, which of course Angelina does.

Tell us about your work that is featured in the exhibition?
I was very pleased to take part in this exhibition and was happy to show the theatre picture from the very first Angelina Book that I drew in 1983.

I also wanted people to know that I did other books apart from Angelina so I put in one from Mary Mary by Sarah Hayes about a little girl and a giant. I am very fond of this image of Mary Mary having a bath in the giants teacup.

We are very proud in Surrey to have The Lightbox have you been yet?
I visited The Lightbox a week ago for the first time, and I think its a wonderful place. I was very impressed with everything and will try to come back not only to see the exhibition again but also to see the rest. I wish that there was something similar near me.

And your plans for Christmas?
I moved to this area to be near my grandsons. They live just around the corner with their parents and so I will be spending my Christmas with them, which will be great fun!

Charlotte Voake
Based between Guildford and Woking, illustrator Charlotte Voake is the artist behind the legendary Ginger the Cat and has also designed the cover of a recent edition of Aesops Fables. Here, she tells us more about her work

So is it true that the inspiration for Ginger came from a cat at the bottom of your garden?
Yes, it is true. Ginger was a stray cat who was in a sorry state when we took him on. Well, he took us on, really! He had to spend some time at the vets getting generally cleaned up.

He was a ginger cat, of course, but I thought he had black ears, he was so dirty. I think he had been living in a patch of nettles at the bottom of the garden. Anyway, he soon became a much-loved member of the family.

What is it that you like most about living in Surrey?
I lived in Esher for a while, across the road from Claremont Landscape Garden, so we spent a great deal of time there, but now I live between Guildford and Woking.

I would like to get some chickens but there are so many foxes about
that Im not sure its a good idea (I had some a few years ago and sadly a fox came in one lunchtime and got them all).

Do you find the county an inspiring place to be as an artist?
Yes, very much so! I set a book Here Comes the Train on the railway bridge near my house. Lots of people stand there and wave to the trains and the driver nearly always waves back and hoots the horn, which the children (and the adults) love! For A Little Guide to Trees, I used lots of local trees as models, including a Scots pine and holly from my garden.

Are you working on any new characters at the moment?
At the moment, Im working on an idea for a book about Mother Goose, but I am also thinking about writing and illustrating a story about my parrot, Gwen.

Tell us about the artwork that is featured in the exhibition at
The Lightbox?
The picture in the exhibition is the cover for The Very Best of Aesops Fables rewritten by Margaret Clarke. The exhibition is pretty ambitious, and a delight. Of course, its interesting to me, but anyone would enjoy it!
In any case, for anyone who hasnt visited The Lightbox, I would wholeheartedly recommend going to see the building itself, with its long staircase, and the marvellous sculptures on loan there.

And how will you be spending Christmas this year?
Christmas is always a bit of a juggling act with family all over the place
but most likely well be in Surrey!

Cassia Thomas
Its been quite a year for up-and-coming artist, Cassia Thomas, who is based in Haslemere. As well as illustrating two new childrens books, Lively Elizabeth and George and Ghost, she is now working on her own, a story about a little boy and his strange, furry sidekick called Pooshnoozle...

So its been an exciting year! How does it feel to see your work in print?
I think when you have a dream, youve always got to believe in it fully or it wont happen. That said, my first illustrated book, Lively Elizabeth, only came out this year and Im still finding it hard to get my head around the fact that its actually happened. I think it only started sinking in when I read it to real, live kids at the launch of the Escape to Wonderland exhibition! Somehow that validated the whole experience.

Tell us more about Lively Elizabeth...
Lively Elizabeth is a little girl whos slightly mischievous. Shes feisty, with lots of energy and she likes to test boundaries... sometimes this doesnt have great consequences for her and her friends. Im pretty sure everyone can relate to Elizabeth. Everyones done something without thinking at one time or another. Its only when you see the effect your actions have had on others that you learn.

What do you like most about Woking?
I actually live in Haslemere, but have been travelling loads to Woking because of being involved with The Lightbox. I like the buzz of Woking. Its big enough, but not too big... Im only a little person! Surrey in general is incredibly influential to my work. I love all the countryside. You can learn so much from looking at how nature handles colours, lighting, shapes and textures. Nature is pretty good at this whole art gubbins! I find walking helps me think through stories, too.

And how about your work thats featured in the exhibition?
What goes into making a book is the most fascinating thing for me, and I wanted to show people a little bit about how I work, so I set up a pretend studio. It actually looks pretty much like my real studio, but tidier, without my computer (which is quite a key component) and my dog (also quite key!). You can see some of my work from its early beginnings to the final piece, and get a sneak preview of Pooshnoozle!

Ive never seen a display of childrens book illustration this big and theres something in there for every generation. Ive been several times now and I always see something new every time.

And your plans for Christmas day?
I will be warming my tootsies on the dogs tummy, breaking my boyfriends teeth with home-made mince pies, and getting thoroughly over-excited at what 2011 might bring!

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