Tuesday, 22 November 2016
Ardizzone in the House of Illustration
The House of Illustration has an exhibition on (until 22 January) of works by the great illustrator Edward Ardizzone. I've always loved his work - since childhood, in fact - so this was a must-see, and it did not disappoint. There's a good range of work on show - drawings, watercolours, pen and ink, etchings, lithographs - representing his career as book illustrator, war artist, observer of the passing scene, and 'commercial artist'. In addition there are several of his delightful illustrated letters to friends and family, and a video in which Shirley Hughes, Quentin Blake and others pay tribute to Ardizzone, a man who seems to have been every bit as genial as his art would suggest.
Ardizzone is a rare example of a cheering artist, one whose works often make you smile and always make you feel that bit better about being alive in this world. Even a picture of a burial party interring corpses - On the Road to Tripoli: A Cup of Tea for the Burial Party (one of his war paintings) - is more about the tommies enjoying their cup of tea than the grisly business they are engaged in. On the other hand there are a couple of war paintings, large watercolours, that are almost bleak - A Battery Position in an Orchard of Young Fruit Trees in the Snow and A Drunken Dutchman in a Street in Bremen, a sad, lone figure in an entirely blasted townscape. Nothing could be further from Ardizzone's usual happy drunks enjoying themselves - and occasionally fighting, especially the women - in the English pubs he loved (see, and enjoy, his illustrations for The Local, a book by Maurice Gorham, who also commissioned much of Ardizzone's work for the Radio Times).
It's easy to undervalue illustrators and rank them far below 'real' artists - a good reason in itself to have a dedicated gallery like the House of Illustration - but a close look at the pictures in this exhibition leaves no doubt of Ardizzone's extraordinary ability. His use of cross-hatching, in particular, to create the most subtle gradations of tone and depth is quite prodigious, as is his all-round facility as a draughtsman. His rounded forms and broken lines suggest the influence of Rowlandson, his heavier lines and deeper shading recall Daumier, and there is something Baroque about the composition of his more complex pictures - but Ardizzone was himself from the start, instantly recognisable, instantly cheering. He brought something very special to the art of illustration, entering fully into the spirit of the book and creating real, complete pictures, with real depth, rather than just decoration. His art will outlast many of those books - indeed, it already has.
As I wandered round this exhibition, I was delighted to find two girl students copying some of the pictures - and copying them so well Ardizzone would surely have approved. It's good to know that some students at least are still learning to draw.