10 brilliant book illustrations that you need to check out right now

Published on: 23 January 2019 Author: James Mayhew

Author and illustrator James Mayhew has been tweeting his favourite book illustrations every day for almost a year - so we gave him the tricky task of picking just ten to share with you...

Someone about to draw on a white piece of paper with a set of colouring pencils

In February 2018, I started a Twitter marathon - #BookIllustrationOfTheDay. My hope was to celebrate illustrators, both well-known and long-forgotten; the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign had already highlighted how illustrators are sometimes un-credited for their work, especially in the media. So I wanted to find a way to remind everyone how beloved book illustrations are, and how they imprint on our memories and colour our lives.

What I didn't expect was the unexpected connections with people all over the world, and the truly lovely community that exists between book lovers - especially illustrated books - over 8,000 of them, to date!

It's been fascinating to go back through the posts and see what's been most enjoyed. One of Tolkein's own illustrations for The Hobbit, Edmund Dulac's Arabian Nights and anything by Arthur Rackham scored highly. And E. H. Shepard's Pooh Bear of course, coinciding with a major V&A exhibition.

Roger Duvoisin is much loved by the illustrators especially, while Kay Nielsen, Errol le Cain, Edward Ardizzone, Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel shone forth too.

Yet this has been a huge celebration of women artists in particular - often working at a time when having a career was considered difficult. Quietly innovative, with exceptional skills, they have nurtured and inspired generations of children.

So I bow down to Mary Shepard (daughter of E. H. Shepard), who was featured for her original Mary Poppins illustrations, and Mary Cicely Barker, creator of the Flower Fairies, still so adored. There was also Pauline Baynes for Narnia, Margaret Bloy Graham, Mary Blair, the Johnstone sisters, Lucy Mabel Attwell, and Alice Provensen, who sadly died in 2018. If you don't know these artists, I urge you to look them up!

There are great contemporary women illustrators too, of course, like the incredible Angela Barrett, Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Judith Kerr, Lisbeth Zwerger, and right up to date with Kazuno Kohara, Marta Altes, Paula Metcalf, Lesley Barnes... we are living in a new golden age. While there is more diversity - an area of growth I'm especially happy to see - we still need more BAME and LGBT illustrators to be commissioned and celebrated.

There are so many of this year's posts I'd love to write about here, but I've only got room for ten, so here they are, a mix of the much loved with the exciting and new!

1. Tove Jansson - Moominland Midwinter

(Published by Schildts, Helsinki 1957; republished Sort of Books, © Moomin Characters™)

The cover of Trollvinter by Tove Jansson

One of the most exciting posts featured an extremely rare 1950s Tove Jansson Moomin drawing from, of all things, a Daily Mail Annual for Girls. Tove's own niece, Sophia, got in touch to ask for more details - she'd never seen the drawing - and happily I was able to trace a copy of the annual and send it to Finland for her to archive. That was a moment of Moomin magic as a new friendship was formed!

But here is the very first #BookIllustrationOfTheDay post: the cover for Moominland Midwinter (or Trollvinter), my favourite Moomin book, which I re-read every January. Jansson's writing has been justly celebrated in recent years, and now I'm redressing the balance with a hearty cheer for her extraordinary economy of line and form and her graphic clarity; she was a superb illustrator.

2. Ivan Bilibin - The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin

(Published by Expeditsii Zagotovlenya Gosudarstvennykh Bumag, St. Petersburg, 1905)

Ivan Bilibin's illustration for The Tale of Tsar Saltan

It was Russian music that first attracted me to Russian folk tales: this one by Pushkin inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee from his comic opera Tsar Saltan. Bilibin's dazzlingly decorative, lavishly printed gift books must have been rare even in 1905, with their chromolitho-graphic printing in gold and silver inks. But they still astonish and fascinate and inspire today.

He dedicated the book to the great composer himself and later designed sets for the opera. Although often reprinted, the original first edition uses rich, lavish, glossy inks that give ravishing depth and lustre to the illustrations.

3. H. R. Millar - The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit

(Published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1906)

H. R. Millar's illustration from The Story of the Amulet

This was always my favourite of E. Nesbit's books, and the sole reason for that was this illustration: the very moment a great wave destroys Atlantis! Compared to today, with CGI movies and digital illustrations, this black and white drawing might seem tame.

Yet whenever I look at this illustration again, and remember Jane, Anthea, Robert, Cyril and the Psammead, I'm back beside them, rooted to the spot in awe at the unspoken tragedy about to engulf the legendary city. The power of illustration! Harold Robert Millar was a fine Scottish artist whose work graced many of Nesbit's books.

4. Jackie Morris - The Music of Gently Falling Snow

(Copyright © Jackie Morris, published by Graffeg 2017)

Jackie Morris's illustration from The Music of Gently Falling Snow

2018 was a great year for this superb illustrator, with The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie winning prizes. However, I'm choosing this wonderful pageant in paint, part of an anthology of music-themed Christmas card images created for Help Musicians. Morris's rhapsodic and filigree scenes of travelling players, angels and animals cast complex and curious spells, with haunting stories woven around them.

5. Ehsan Abdollahi - A Bottle of Happiness by Pippa Goodhart

(Copyright © Ehsan Abdollahi; text copyright © Pippa Goodhart. Published by Tiny Owl 2017)

Ehsan Abdollahi's illustration from A Bottle of Happiness

I was fortunate enough to meet Ehsan last year at the House of Illustration, and subsequently at the Edinburgh Book Festival. What a charming man he is - and his beautiful, strange, exquisite work has quickly become much admired. I find his work utterly inspirational: an experimental mix of techniques, combining decorative line with collage and bold colour. Together, they are so enchanting!

6. Pam Smy - Thornhill

(Copyright © 2017 Pam Smy, published by David Fickling Books 2017)

One of Pam Smy's illustrations for Thornhill

25 years ago, when I first taught at Cambridge School of Art, one of my very first students was the quiet but extraordinary Pam Smy. She sparkled with possibilities and her sketchbooks were legendary. It's been an emotional, joyous thing to see her achieve such acclaim for Thornhill.

The dark tale, divided in time by the mix of word and image, is not for the faint-hearted. The sheer quality of drawing, observation and detail, in atmospheric, gothic settings, captures every malevolent glint of the eye, every unsettling shadow of this modern classic.

7. PJ Lynch - The Steadfast Tin Soldier

(Copyright © 1988 PJ Lynch, retold by Naomi Lewis, published by Andersen Press)

P J Lynch's illustration from The Steadfast Tin Soldier

I had the pleasure of spending time with PJ in Singapore and Dublin in 2017 - he's an illustrator I'd admired for so many years, and we became good friends. The perspective and draughtsmanship in his work are things of absolute wonder; the watercolour skills are, frankly, super-human. He is one of the real greats. This is a favourite version of a favourite tale.

8. Narisa Togo - Magnificent Birds

(Copyright © 2017 Narisa Togo, Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ www.walker.co.uk)

Narisa Togo's illustration from Magnificent Birds

Another ex-student! This remarkable, discreet, charming Japanese illustrator has spent years studying and sketching birds from life. Her passion for ornithology shines through these extraordinary lino cuts, a difficult technique she developed at Cambridge School of Art and has clearly mastered.

With a nod to the great printmakers of her heritage, Togo's ambitious and beautiful prints quite honestly take my breath away. Without doubt, this is one of my favourite illustrated books of recent times, and how joyous to see a non-fiction title graced with artwork of this calibre.

9. John Burningham - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming

(Copyright © John Burningham, published by Jonathan Cape, 1964)

John Burningham's illustration for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

The original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming is a personal favourite, and the film (which is very different) was 50 years old in 2018. I loved both the film and the book as a 5-year-old, and have been fascinated by Burningham's extraordinary, audacious work ever since.

Here, the great green Paragon Panther racing car, recently rejuvenated by inventor Commander Pott, takes wing over the Goodwin Sands, in Fleming's 60s-set story of greedy gangsters and Parisian sweet shops. Sadly, John passed away as I was preparing this post, and now this image holds even greater meaning. A wonderful, daring and innovative artist, greatly missed.

10. Judith Kerr - The Tiger Who Came to Tea

(Text and illustrations copyright © Kerr-Kneale Productions Ltd 1968)

Judith Kerr's illustration from The Tiger Who Came to Tea

I'm including this because it was far and away the most beloved illustration featured all year. I love that time of year when the nights draw in and it gets dark early, and going out, as a child, to find the lights are all on. The heightened sense of adventure is perfectly captured in the resplendent colour, and this illustration clearly holds a very special place in the hearts of many.

#BookIllustrationOfTheDay will continue daily on Twitter, and you can follow James at @mrjamesmayhew.

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