Monday, 13 June 2011

The Elves, the Shoemaker, and a pile of old... Ladybirds

In times of stress, or tiredness, when I wish simply to be soothed a little, I often find myself drawn to my small collection of Ladybird 'Well-Loved Tales', easy-reading books published from the mid-1960s onwards, on which I cut my reading teeth.

These fairy-tales were re-interpreted for Ladybird by Vera Southgate, and beautifully illustrated by Eric Winter and Robert Lumley. I remember being captivated as a child by the sumptuousness of Cinderella's ball-gowns, the menace of the ogre's face in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the handsome, jaunty figure of 'Puss in Boots'.

Sadly, I no longer possess the books I cherished as a youngster. I (rather too) generously handed them down to a younger cousin, assuming, I suppose, that she would care for them as I had. Huh. I think I only need say the words 'coloured' and 'crayons' and you'll be able to imagine the horror for yourself. It still makes me sad to contemplate that mindless destruction!

Happily, though, thanks to the wonders of eBay, I have rebuilt my collection, and have even added stories I never owned as a child. I find when I look through these delightful little books that they hold even more magic for me now than they did when I was a five year old. And much of this magic lies in the way these books were illustrated.

One of my favourites is 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' illustrated by Robert Lumley (this link not only includes the image from the front cover, but a synopsis and several other illustrations - well worth a look).

(This is wholly irrelevant, but compare any of the pictures of the shoemaker with this photograph of Mr Kidd, one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld's henchmen in 'Diamonds Are Forever', and tell me there's not a startling resemblance.)

When I look at this book now, I notice tiny details. For instance, the first illustration shows the shoemaker and his wife at their poor, rough table. The room is shabby. There is plaster missing from a wall and the laths show through (this is a popular motif for poverty which has been used in everything from 'Tom and Jerry' to 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', but no less effective for that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!).

Later on in the book, when the couple have become prosperous, we see them in the same room. But there is now a fire burning in the grate, the furniture is of higher quality, and the couple are better dressed and have acquired a cat. The colour tone of the whole image is much warmer than the one which opened the book.

A little later, when the couple discuss how to reward the elves, there is a beautiful illustration. Crisp winter light floods in through the latticed windows, there is a robin on the windowsill - a promise of Christmas - and I swear I can smell the snow outside, so vividly is this scene illustrated:

And there is nothing more magical than the illustration of the tiny clothes and shoes which the shoemaker and his wife prepare for the threadbare elves, to thank them for their hard work. Note the Christmas decorations - Christmas is always good for a bit of extra magic:

From the late 1970s onwards, the style of illustration changed dramatically, as you can see here. It's all very subjective, of course, but the later style, to me, is more 'cartoon' than the tiny pieces of art which accompanied the stories in the earlier books, and it holds little of the same magic.  

I was lucky enough a while ago to see a handful of the original watercolour drawings for the Well-Loved Tales series, in an exhibition on fairy tales at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle. They were considerably larger than the books in which they were used, their colours glowed, and they exuded nostalgia! I was transported straight back to my childhood wonderment... These truly were artistic masterpieces in their own right.

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