Sunday, October 20, 2013

Peggy Fortnum: "Please Take Care of This Bear"

Illustration by Peggy Fortnum

It's been years since I came clean about my personal artistic inspirations, giving up the heroic, traditional canon and admitting it was in fact much more humble in origin. There are drawings that have stayed with me long after working their magic on a young reader's imagination. If words are a doorway to other worlds, then these accompanying pictures were like big picture windows... mysterious, evocative and tantalizing illustrations that enticed a child along into a story, told to them over the pages of a book. Whether read on a lap, on a floor, at a desk or even under covers, the images came to be an inseparable, crucial accompaniment, a part of the story. As I grew older and graduated to longer and harder works, the pictures began to go away, grow smaller and farther and fewer between. This I think is when the unfortunate association is made between "growing up" and leaving those silly picture books (ie comics/sequential art) behind - only serious books are sadly empty of imagery, and unless one has cultivated the instinctual mental powers to envision one's own conceptual world (assuming the author gives enough description to go on) and/or create it yourself, part of the joy of reading leaches away, the art and soul of the craft starts to wither up, along with the everyday, special wonders of childhood itself. Presumably a writer would object to that perspective, but I'm not speaking here as someone who writes, or from the point of view of a practicing artist either. This is from that kid still deep inside who loves books and everything in them, pictures and words.

The last pages of my dog-eared adolescence were bookmarked by the pens of such artists as Sendak, Garth Williams (Charlotte's Web etc.) and of course E.H. Shepard (Pooh). Often overshadowed by other classic in the field of children's book illustration is the artist behind another diminutive and distinctive bruin, one Paddington Bear, by Peggy Fortnum:
Margaret Emily Noel Nuttall-Smith who works under the name Peggy Fortnum was born in Harrow, Middlesex. She illustrated some eighty childrens' books, but is perhaps best-known for her timeless illustrations for Michael Bond's series of books on Paddington Bear from 1958-1974. She attended the Turnbridge Wells School of Arts and Crafts, and the Central School of Arts and Crafts - Cambridge Prints 
I'm fortunate to have a hardcover 3rd edition in my collection of this title, and it really takes me back every time I crack the cover, and come across one of her wonderful renderings. Fortnum was the first artist to bring the bear to life on the printed page (a far cry from the current sorry state of affairs when it comes to contemporary pop culture bears), and she has left an indelible mark on the lives of countless children with her loose, gestural linework that is so deceptively simple. Her black & white pen & ink pieces are sparse in their use of sketchy texture, but always arrive at that perfect balance between overkill and ineffective and useless illustration.

My favorite Paddington story these days has to be the classic "Paddington and the 'Old Master'." In this charming, bumbling tale he takes a bottle of paint remover and a rag to one of Mr. Brown's own pieces which is slated for entry to an exhibition. Paddington paints over the canvas, which is picked up and delivered to the show and awarded first place in the competition. The prize money is donated to "a certain home for retired bears," and Paddington is heard to comment:
"I think," said Paddington, to the world in general, "they might have stood it the right way up. It's not every day a bear wins first prize in a painting competition!" 
And also it's not every day we come across such a whimsical and wonderful combination of words and artwork so perfectly put together.

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