Reviews 2010

The Illustrators of the Wind in the Willows 1908-2008

The Illustrators of the Wind in the Willows 1908-2008. Carolyn Hares-Stryker. Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2009. 216 pages. $55 (hardback).

The area of comparative illustration is a fascinating one. To see what different artists bring to a text opens up questions about why particular scenes were chosen, how well an illustrator’s style matches an author’s writing, and to what extent illustrations help to interpret a particular narrative. And, in this context especially, what space has the author left for the illustrator to add anything? In 1983, an edition of The Wind in the Willows illustrated by John Burningham was published. Burningham had not previously read the book, and found that “the pictures add a quality of character, but there’s so much in the text already that the pictures can’t add that [much or] the balance is off” (56). This has not, however, prevented many illustrators from endeavouring to bring their own visual interpretation to the story.

In her preface, Carolyn Hares-Stryker describes The Wind in the Willows as “a book that pulls at our hearts and is as immediate now as it was when it was published at the height of the Edwardian era in 1908” (2), suggesting that it connects its readers in a special way. Certainly many of the illustrators of The Wind in the Willows talk about their earlier memories of it, while some confess to not having read it as a child but, perhaps less realistically than Burningham, were enchanted by its particular qualities.

Originally intending to write a study of E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for Kenneth Grahame’s text, Hares-Stryker soon found herself embarking on a massive study of the many artists who had worked on the book. She discusses 91 of these and references three others whose name she has not been able to track down. She suggests that no other English children’s book has been illustrated by so many artists. I thought Alice in Wonderland would have generated more illustrated editions, especially taking into account non-English language editions. The main thing is that Hares-Stryker has produced a very readable and interesting guide to many of those who did illustrate The Wind in the Willows. She is not suggesting that her list is definitive, but it certainly reads like a roll-call of the great names in children’s book illustration as well as including some lesser-known artists.

The first edition carried but one illustration, a frontispiece by Graham Robertson, showing three cherubic creatures admiring a waterfall – nothing really to do with Mole, Ratty, Toad or any other of Grahame’s creatures. The first illustrated edition was published in 1913 with eight colour plates by the American artist Paul Bransom. Hares-Stryker records two other artists who took it on before E.H. Shepard, who is most associated with breathing a visual identity into the inhabitants of the riverbank; the first edition illustrated by Shepard was published in 1931 and subsequently he added more illustrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the book. Neither Ransom nor Shepard met with the unqualified approval of Grahame. He wanted Arthur Rackham to illustrate his text, which he did for a volume published in 1940. It was Rackham’s last book, and Hares-Stryker tells us that upon completing his work for it, the dying artist sank back on his pillow, saying “Thank goodness, that is the last one” (17).

Hares-Stryker’s approach is chronological by decade. Half a page to three pages, including illustrations, are allotted to each artist. As well as gleaning biographical and bibliographical facts from various reference works – there is a bibliography of works consulted – Hares-Stryker has added information obtained from interviews and correspondence with many of the illustrators themselves, or if they are no longer alive, with relatives. Many of the great and the good of children’s book illustration are here: Robert Ingpen, Inga Moore, Patrick Benson, Michael Hague, Michael Foreman as well as others whose names are more familiar in an adult milieu. Animated and photographed editions are included, as is a graphic novel version by Michel Plessix. Unfortunately, this is one of the few editions that is not visually represented.

While there is an index with the names of the illustrators and the publishers, an alphabetical list of illustrators with the details of the edition they illustrated would have made a handy reference tool. A list of the scenes illustrated would also save a bit of flapping around between pages. Most of the illustrations are in black-and-white, presumably to keep the expense down, and there are sixteen full-colour pages in the centre of the book. Even so, it can be seen that the range of styles and media brought to bear on the text is huge; in some cases good detail about the media employed is given, but in others more discussion about technique and media would be useful.

It is difficult to compare the work of different illustrators as different scenes have been chosen for reproduction. Some artists impart a gentle, friendly tone while others explore more of the darker elements in The Wind in the Willows. The most challenging chapter in the book, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” must also present challenges for an artist. Justin Todd wanted the chapter omitted before hitting on the idea of showing Pan as a spiritual presence in reverse silhouette, his shape defined by the landscape around him.

Overall, this is a useful and entertaining volume. It will no doubt be drawn on by other scholars and students carrying out research into The Wind in the Willows or into the work of the artists whose illustrations are depicted. Historically too, it provides an interesting look at how illustration has changed over a century, and indeed how a certain sameness pervades some of the illustrations, even those separated by many years. Perhaps this reflects Burningham’s reservations about how little room there is for the artist in Grahame’s text. And it is certainly interesting for the more casual reader who wants to dip in to see how 91 illustrators have dealt with this classic.

Valerie Coghlan
Church of Ireland College of Education, Ireland