the charm of the fairy tale illustration

I've written lately about fairy tales, but it wouldn't be honest of me to leave the subject without saying how fairy tale illustrations influenced me as a child - perhaps even more in some cases than the stories themselves. Old pictures in old books that smelled of road-dust and sunburned stone, sea-wash, starfall. Pictures that (how do I explain this to non-synaesthetes?) weighed differently from modern illustrations, and were textured more richly, and sounded real.

Stories were marvellous doorways that I could open through this scene, that scene - but with pictures I was helpless, I just tumbled right through.


 margaret rice oxley


Walter Crane, Howard Knowles, Kate Greenaway, Henry Justice Ford ... these were the makers of my dreaming. The stories and verse they illustrated taught me how to think, and what to think, and how to make my own stories. But their pictures became the panorama against which I set those thoughts, stories, and beliefs. They have always been the vision of Elsewhere, the ideal of the world, the colour of wind, the wish for whatever was.

(Oh, books! How could any girl want a doll when she could have entire worlds?)


 Horace Knowles



My childhood books seemed more like historical tomes than fairy tales (perhaps because my parents presented them with such seriousness and tenderness), and so, to me, the world they depicted was what ours had genuinely been before its magic was lost. I pored over their pictures with love and grief.


Kate Greenaway


Whenever I see a fairytale illustration, my attention is drawn immediately to its edges. I am less interested in the depiction of story than the background setting. The castles, the stone pathways leading off to - where? oh where? (I could sit for hours, imagining where.) The villages, markets, and old, bannered cities. The troll-haunted hills. The clothes, furniture, books. I want to read those books that women are reading in illustrations of the books I am reading ...


 Anne Anderson


I guess this is one of the things that made me a writer. And a lover of historic biographies. And a woman who tends to stare wistfully into the wild distance, dreaming of some nameless lost place I can never set foot in.  The uncomfortable fact is that, having spent too long as a child reading old books, I am now forever called into a world that doesn't really exist except to fill in the background of vintage children's illustrations.


6 comments:

  1. "Whenever I see a fairytale illustration, my attention is drawn immediately to its edges. I am less interested in the depiction of story than the background setting".
    Oh my goodness - yes! Yes. I always did this, and imagined myself into those worlds, and used to ache for mine to be and look like them. x

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  2. I pored over the illustrations by Adrienne Ségur in The Fairy Tale Book for hours and hours as a kid, only remember the barest bones of the tales but know every detail in the illustrations by heart

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  3. Thanks for writing this, it's something lovely to think about! I often think of the illustrations in my childhood fairy tale books and how they made me feel. There is a particular one I'm trying to hunt down because I remember how I'd stare at the artwork and get lost in it's forests, imagining what it would be like to explore and pick wildflowers.

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  4. "(Oh, books! How could any girl want a doll when she could have entire worlds?)"

    amen, sister!

    everything you say about books, and especially fairy tale, sounds so familiar to me. those glorious illustrations---my favorites come from the 1880s thru the 1920s---were in no small part responsible for some of my 'hiraeth', i think...

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  5. It's so lovely to read these comments and see that others have the same experience. :-) Thank you everyone.

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  6. Oh, how I loved fairytale illustrations when I was a little girl! I had heaps and heaps of storybooks when I was 3, 4, 5, and unable to read... the memories of the beautiful illustrations will stay with me forever, I think.

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