Heavyweights with a light touch

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Jaded lovers of modern art fervidly seeking their next clichéd attempt to épater les bourgeois – be it rotting flesh, cast irony, “ready-made art” from B&Q or pictures painted in elephant dung – had better avoid The British Art of Illustration 1800-2006. All they will find here is splendid draughtsmanship, marvellous use of colour and object lessons in composition rendered in old-fashioned pencils, inks, watercolours and other traditional media.

Although the gallery is crammed with artwork, like pearls in a box, there is a lack of preciousness. Pictures are mostly small, since they were designed for the page, and the manner of their execution is determined by the printing method of the time. Fine art has no such constraints: it is not created with reproduction in mind.

The illustrators of the late 19th century honed their skills drawing in solid lines so they could be copied on to a woodblock by an engraver. When the less labour-intensive, thus cheaper and far more versatile photomechanical process became the norm at the turn of the century, the artists of the time could cut loose, and it is no coincidence that the Edwardian era became the golden age of illustration.

All the heavyweights are here, and are distinguished by their lightness of touch. The big themes were fairy tales, Grimmness, epics and sagas: a chance to pictorialise heroes, fair maidens and the pre-Freudian nightmare world of monsters and related grotesquerie.

Arthur Rackham, whose style echoed the pre-Raphaelites, William Blake and Albrecht Dürer’s woodblock prints, specialised in stark, damp and dead northern midwinter vistas, with spiky, leafless trees like gnarled, knuckly and highly animated old men; landscapes populated by timeless, Brueghelesque, big-nosed peasants, princesses, knights, trolls, giants and multifarious enchanting bad things. These are drawn in rich black outlines with weak and sludgy grey and khaki watercolour washes.

The brothers William and Charles Heath Robinson were both exponents of fantasy. Charles never tired of drawing fairies and such phantasmagoria while William delved into the unlimited comic possibilities of the new-fangled mechanised world: rickety, pulley-driven contraptions of ludicrous complexity feebly fulfilling some trivial or pointless task.

Frank Adams draws his nursery rhymes so straight that they look ironical: perfect, stolid and somehow anonymous – although there’s also a beautiful picture of an owl that’s as good as you’re likely to get.

The Emma Florence Harrison style was so heavy of outline that it could take on an almost stained-glass appearance, filled with bright, dabby colours.

Animals feature strongly in the show: lions, lambs, crows, an echidna, wolves, hens, even some pigs. There are charming crayonned and wishy-washy cats by Kathleen Hale, and Simon Bond’s less sentimental “Uses of a Dead Cat”. Emma Chichester Clark adds a halcyon-hued slant to the menagerie, featuring bats, frogs and lemurs.

And there are lots of bears. Winnie the Pooh, “that irritating little bear” as its artist E.H. Shepard described it, is the most feted, and one wonders how irritated Shepard would be by the £75,000price tag on a four-inch-square pen-and-ink sketch of Pooh and Christopher Robin; Cheaper bears are available, as in some handsome 1970s drawings of Paddington by Fred Banbury for less than £2,000.

Those of an ironic retro sensibility can indulge their proclivities a Mabel Lucie Attwell greeting card cutie, an original page from a Frank Hampson Dan Dare comic strip, or perhaps a G.E. Studdy painting of the once phenomenally popular Bonzo Dog.

H.M. Bateman, “the Master of Wild Exactitude”, as G.K. Chesterton called him, has two of my favourite pictures in the show. Neither could be described as typically “Batemanesque”, ie that pinpointing of deep embarrassment via a social gaffe, as in “The Man Who . . . ” series. These are straightforward sketches. “Connoisseurs” features a couple of gormless coves deep in discussion over a collection of tired-looking toby jugs; “The Partners” shows an unfunny clown and his partner, a Jack Russell terrier in full circus rig. This pair of pictures, simple, direct and small, are colossal in their mastery of line, composition and colour.

A few of Max Beerbohm’s drooping, tobacco-coloured caricatures are on show, and there’s a drily languid drawing of Stephen Spender by Vicky, from the 1950s.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Nicolas Bentley managed to capture all the richness of character he wanted to in his austere sketches. Russell Brockbank pulled off a similar feat with the road vehicles of the 1940s and 1950s, imbuing them with extraordinary life and personality.

Also on display is some of the work of the American “satirical” artist Edward Sorel, caricatures mostly, and excellent they are. He draws in a sort of constructive scribble: the ghost of the 18th-century James Gillray haunts his work, in both the draughtsmanship and the spite.

‘The British Art of Illustration 1800-2006’ is at the Chris Beetles Gallery at 8 & 10 Ryder Street, London W1, tel 20 7839 7551, until January 6

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