Joseph Mallord William Turner, Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819.
Watercolour and gouache with scraping out on paper, 30.6 x 45.5 cm.
© National Galleries of Scotland.
Two watercolours of exquisite beauty, by Turner (above) and Blake (below), which have been commissioned and executed to illustrate books, have inspired this post. These watercolours were shown at “The Greats” exhibition (that had just finished showing at the Art Gallery of NSW) alongside grandest works by such masters as Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, Gaugin, Seurat, Monet… What a line-up!
The engraving of Turner’s watercolour reproduced above features as the frontispiece to “Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse” book, written by Robert Stevenson in 1824. Charlotte Topsfiled, the senior curator for prints and drawings of National Gallery of Scotland, notes that “Stevenson’s text includes a vivid description of a storm he had witnessed on Bell Rock, which Turner must have drawn upon for this superbly dramatic scene”.¹ Illustrating has played a significant role in Turner’s career, his services been in great demand and well paid for.
William Blake, God writing upon the tables of the Covenant, c.1805.
Ink and watercolour over pencil and some sketching with a stylus on paper, 41.9 x 34.2 cm.
© National Galleries of Scotland.
William Blake was a poet, philosopher, painter as well as an illustrator and printmaker. The above watercolour is one of the series of eighty Bible illustrations, which have been commissioned in 1799. Blake was paid a regular stipend for producing these works and, similarly to Turner, has been a prolific illustrator.² His other book illustrations, including many more for the Bible, can be viewed at www.blakearchive.org (a comprehensive online resource for Blake enthusiasts).
The inclusion of the above two illustrations in an exhibition at a major Gallery (amongst artworks by some of the greatests masters art history has ever known) accompanied by the exhibition labels and thoroughly researched catalogue entries positions these Blake and Turner watercolors as ‘art’. Yet many art historians and artists today would argue that any illustration practice is mere craft.
One of the greatest Australian children’s books illustrators and the master in his field, the Australian artist Robert Ingpen said this about his own art versus illustration practice:
“My art boils down to this: You can choose to be an artist and fly away with your creativity, or to be an illustrator and surround yourself with craft. You cannot be both. The great American illustrator N. C. Wyeth once wrote that “the artistic powers of an illustrator spring from the same source as do the powers of the painter; but the profound difference lies in the fact that the illustrator submits his inspiration to a definite end; the painter carries his into infinitude. Therefore, the work of the illustrator resolves itself into craft” .³
As a collector of children’s books illustrations (often exposed to originals) I am used to lifting them out of the context they illustrate and looking at the multiple choices that an illustrator had to make – content, style, color, line work, composition, visual references… I am sure that is not all. There are so many variables whose combination can produce an almost infinte number of visual outcomes, some turning out appealing, engaging or intriguing while others fail to get there. So, art or craft? – is the question… If illustration is mere craft, deciding how to go about its infinite possibilities has got to be art.
“The Greats” exhibition encouraged the appreciation of Turner’s and Blake’s book illustration watercolors as art. Why can’t we do the same with illustrations for children’s books…
 Charlotte Topsfiled, “Joseph Millord William Turner. Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819”, in Exhibition Catalogue, The Greats. Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, (Sydney: AGNSW, 2015), p. 70.
 Charlotte Topsfiled, “William Blake. God writing upon the tables of the Covenant, c. 1805”, in Exhibition Catalogue, The Greats. Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, (Sydney: AGNSW, 2015), p. 67.
 Robert Ingpen, in Artist to Artist. 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children about Their Art, (NY: Philomel Books, 2007), p.42.