Book of the week: Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator

A new biography on the artist-illustrator Edward Ardizzone and a retrospective exhibition dedicated to his work provide Peyton Skipwith with a feast of delights.

Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator
By Alan Powers (Lund Humphries, £40)

Edward Ardizzone (1900–79), like his friend John Betjeman, is one of those remarkable figures who, by swimming against contemporary taste, have insidiously worked their way into the British—dare I say, English—psyche. It’s pure coincidence that their family roots were alien—in Betjeman’s case, Dutch and in Ardizzone’s, Franco- Italian—as two more typically English old buffers would be hard to find. This book is part biography and part an analysis and description of Ardizzone’s work—most particularly, as the title suggests, of his work as an illustrator and graphic artist, although he also painted in oils.

Ardizzone probably shared Ravilious’s view that painting in oils was like painting with toothpaste and he was undoubtedly happiest with pen, black ink and watercolour, although his large decorative panels reinterpreting Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin, painted for the Carmelite church in Faversham, Kent, look a remarkable achievement. However, it was in his children’s books, especially those devoted to Tim and Ginger, Lucy Brown, Mr Grimes and Nurse Matilda, that he revealed his true self.

These books, based on stories he made up—ostensibly to amuse his own children, although surely as much for his own pleasure—are redolent with ‘the authenticity of recollected childhood’. Ardizzone always treated his readers as equals, telling them slightly risqué stories packed with adventures, careless parents, useless adults and brave children, whose resourcefulness enables them to elude the greatest dangers.

However, his scope was far wider than children’s stories and it will surprise many readers that this ‘good humoured spaniel’, as Lillian Browse described him, illustrated more than 160 books by authors ranging from Bunyan to Barrie. Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, Eleanor Farjeon and James Reeves were his favourites.

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Alan Powers gives the reader delightful insights into Ardizzone’s self-contained but wayward character, which was at one with the world he drew. Among the sources he quotes is a letter from the rather more puritanical Edward Bawden, who, with slightly grudging admiration, wrote: ‘Your pen curls around skirts and breasts and bottoms, while mine takes its recreation in formal geometric rectitude.’

This may have been in response to an illustrated wartime letter carefully preserved by Bawden, in which Ardizzone describes painting an enchanting group of WRNS, ‘small and dumpy with fat little tits bursting out of little white blouses and fat little behinds in tight black skirts’.

Ardizzone’s eye was ever keen for such detail, whether on home territory in Maida Vale, in an army hospital, the souks of Cairo or the back streets of Naples. His pen deftly captured the seedy pub life of Elgin Avenue, bar- gaining Arabs, Scottish soldiers bemused by nude sculptures in the museum at Leptis Magna and the wry humour of the burial party on the road to Tripoli taking a break from their grisly task. However, even in the most macabre of these scenes, ‘cheerfulness will keep breaking in’, as Osbert Lancaster noted.

In addition to books and his war work, Ardizzone drew posters for Shell and Guinness. His lithograph The Fattest Woman in the World, inspired by The Guinness Book of Records, with its fairground advertising and scratching dog, is definitely not politically correct and shows Ardizzone’s childish delight in overstepping the mark. In contrast are his 1967 Birthday Greetings Telegram for the Royal Mail and his menu designs for Overton’s.

One of the latter shows the interior of the restaurant full of red-faced men, décolletée ladies, lobsters, bottles, glasses and cigars. The general air of bonhomie and good living this lithograph exudes is surely, as the author says, ‘one of the most appropriate uses of Ardizzone’s talent’. He enjoyed life as he recorded it and was neither prurient nor puritan.

Ardizzone’s original artwork, and much else besides, can be seen until January 22, 2017, in ‘Ardizzone: A Retrospective’ at House of Illustration, 2, Granary Square, London N1 (; 020–3696 2020)