The Magic of Books from the Golden Age of Illustration

This week we hear from illustrator Teresa Flavin on some magically-illustrated books from her childhood…

When I was about nine years old, my family visited a used bookshop where I discovered a fairy story with graceful line illustrations. The book was cheap enough to buy with my pocket money and though it was somewhat battered and dog-eared, I treasured this magical object from a long ago time. It was seeing printed artwork like this that first made me think about becoming an illustrator.

I studied its elegant drawings of fairy ladies and wondered if I could ever draw well enough to make pictures for books.

The old fairy book, published in the early twentieth century by Blackie & Son, has long since vanished. But I have never lost the thrill of discovering beautiful old books from the Golden Age of book illustration. When I was invited by Leeds Central Library to have a look at their special collection of picture books and choose a small selection for display during the Pirates, Pants and Wellyphants exhibition of the work of illustrator Nick Sharratt, I was delighted.

Nothing could have prepared me for the treasures in the library’s collection. I got to handle gorgeous editions illustrated by the foremost artists of the Golden Age, such as Warwick Goble. He lived from 1862 to 1943 and was a versatile British illustrator who worked for many magazines of his time as well as creating illustrations for early science fiction stories. As resident gift book illustrator for Macmillan in 1909, his deluxe volume of The Water Babies is considered to be one of the finest versions ever published. The illustration shown here is a colour plate of a bird of paradise fixed into the black background and set off by its caption on the translucent facing page. Goble’s work benefitted from the huge improvements in colour printing technology that gave rise to richly illustrated gift book industry.

Warwick Goble – Bird of Paradise (1909)

Another gift book excited me as soon as I saw the name on its elaborate cover: Harry Clarke. Clarke (1889-1931) was a celebrated Irish stained glass artist who created intricate and atmospheric illustrations for classic stories. This beautiful cover is from his 1916 edition of Hans Christian Andersen stories containing a set of forty full-page illustrations in black and white and colour.

Harry Clarke – Hans Christian Andersen

Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) was one of the most famous illustrators of the Golden Age, noted for his excellent draughtsmanship, use of colour and characterisation. His illustrations created fantastic atmospheres of magic and mystery, as well as humour and mischief, that endeared his work to readers then and now. Rackham’s large volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales published in 1900 came in this elegant box lined with marbled paper.

Rackham’s Grimm Fairy Tales

But the item that excited me perhaps most of all came from the hand of one of my illustration heroes, Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist whose work was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement as well as Japanese and Chinese art and design. He created striking and magical illustrations for gift book publishers in England. When I opened Nielsen’s 1924 volume of Hans Christian Andersen stories, I found that it was marked as number 48 out of an edition of 500 copies – and that Kay Nielsen had signed it. The ink is dark and clear and for a few moments I had the odd and magical feeling that he was in the room. I leafed through the splendid illustrations in the book and felt another strong emotion: the desire to run home and paint images half as inspiring and accomplished as Nielsen’s and the rest of my heroes from the Golden Age.

Kay Nielsen signature

Teresa Flavin is a Leeds-based author and illustrator of books for children and young people. She lectures on the Illustration course at Leeds Arts University and leads occasional creative workshops for children and adults with Leeds Libraries.

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