This is a true story of how two sets of original children’s book illustrations were saved from a rubbish dump in St. Petersburg, Russia; and through some curious twists of fate, found their way to the homeland of their Australian creator Harry Reade. Have I piqued your curiosity? Then read on to find out how this tale of intrigue unfolds.
These illustrations were created when Harry Reade, the Australian creative and jack-of-all-trades, lived in Moscow (click here to learn more about this man’s roller-coaster of a life). His connection to communist Russia of the 1960s began when he met a beautiful Russian woman, Elga Efimova. They met in Cuba where Reade, forever fighting against social injustice, was helping the cause of the Cuban revolution while Olga was working as a translator. By the time Olga had to return to Moscow, Reade was hopelessly in love and put all his energy into securing a visa to enter the USSR.
These were the times of the so-called Cold War between the communist USSR and the West, and obtaining a visa was practically impossible for a Westerner unless one had ties to diplomatic circles. But against all odds, Harry Reade was granted permission for entry and pursued his love to Moscow. During his time in Soviet Russia, he supported communist causes and worked as a freelance illustrator for propaganda magazines and illustrated some children’s books.
The two sets of illustrations (20 in total) at the centre of this mystery would have been commissioned for a 1966 children’s book published by “Детская Литература” (“Children’s Literature”), a major state publisher of the former Soviet Union. The book includes a Russian translation of two popular fairy tales by the German poet and novelist Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827): “Little Mouk” and “Little Longnose”, both being the most captivating stories set in the colourful Orient.
“Once upon a time there was a dwarf whose name was Mukrah, but who was nicknamed Little Mouk. The title fitted him well, for, although quite an old fellow, he was only about three feet high. But, though his body was small, his head was larger and rounder than those of many of his townspeople”…
So begins the first of the two tales taking the reader on an intense journey with plots full of twists and turns, mystic metamorphoses and misfortunes, which can be undone only if the characters outwit, outsmart and outdo fate itself. Little wonder Harry Reade became interested in illustrating these tales as his own life was no less intense than that of Hauff’s characters (read more about it here).
The story of these illustrations’ survival goes back to the turbulent 1990s when the former USSR collapsed and a series of post-Soviet reforms in post-collapse Russia resulted in large-scale privatisation of state-owned assets, enterprises and property. The privatisation meant that some state enterprises had to vacate premises quickly to give way to the new owners, usually former communist leaders or people close to state administration. The state publisher “Детская Литература” (“Children’s Literature”) was amongst many affected. When the buildings they occupied were privatised organisations often abandoned the sites with publishers usually leaving behind some archives, including original illustrations. In most cases, the new owners were ignorant, incompetent or lacked any interest in pursuing the original enterprise of a privatised object, therefore the inherited publishers’ archives were seen as useless and simply discarded or thrown away.
Such must have been the fate of 20 “Little Mouk” and “Little Longnose” original illustrations by Harry Reade as this set was ultimately retrieved from a dumpsite in St. Petersburg by an antiques’ dealer who chanced upon it, recognised the value of the original artwork and appropriated the set for resale.
Some illustrations were sold separately to a few Russian collectors. The bulk of the set though has been snapped up by Sergey Chistobaev, an art historian, photographer, collector of children’s books and original illustrations and an authority on Soviet children’s books history. He is currently working on a 12-volume bibliography called “Artists of Children’s Books of the USSR, 1945-1991”, which will include biographical data and about 100,000 images of a few thousand Soviet illustrators’ work!!!
Passionate about collecting complete sets, Sergey tracked down the missing “Little Mouk” and “Little Longnose” illustrations and managed to persuade their owners to sell those to him to preserve the set’s completeness. For the record – to make a collector part with a rare and curious item (such as work by an eccentric Australian artist commissioned by USSR’s major state publisher during the Cold War years) – this was a ‘mission-impossible’ kind of task. It took time, effort, some difficult negotiations and we are extremely grateful to Sergey for persevering to acquire them.
I learned about this set while the hunt for the missing illustrations was still on, and I was helping Sergey research who Harry Reade was, his connection to Russia and why he illustrated children books there. The more I researched, the more this man’s life, art and personality fascinated me. Ultimately, it sparked the desire to add Reade’s work to my collection of original artworks.
Fortunately, my desire correlated with that of Sergey’s to have these illustrations reside in Australia. And here they are today – unique artworks of Australian and Russian descent, saved from obliteration, well preserved and protected under my custodianship, just waiting for the next chapter of this intriguing tale to be written.
Say, that of being published in an Australian edition of two wonderful Hauff’s fairy tales! I hope that this is read by some Australian publishers and heard by the Universe…
Below you can see the illustrations photographed next to the respective pages of the book they were published in. Enjoy!
Read more about Harry Reade’s life and work in this post: “Little known picture books by Harry Read”. For reviews of Harry Reade’s 2 Australian picture books follow this links: “Whit Fellers Are Like Traffic Lights” and “How Many Ropes on a Boat?“. Both books are out of print and hard to come by so the respective reviews reproduce them in their entirety.
Bibliography for Harry Reade life’s biographical details:
 Max Bannah, “A cause for animation: Harry Reade and the Cuban Revolutiion: thesis, <https://eprints.qut.edu.au/16452/1/Max_Bannah_Thesis.pdf>
 “Max Bannah – Revolutionary cels: The Sydney waterfront, Harry Reade and Cuban animation”, Animation Studies Online Journal, posted on 29 December 2009 by Timo Linsenmaier; <https://journal.animationstudies.org/max-bannah-revolutionary-cels-the-sydney-waterfront-harry-reade-and-cuban-animation/>
Max Bannah lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he works as an animator producing illustrations and cartoon graphics, television commercials, and short films. He teaches Animation History and Practice, and Drawing for Animation at the Queensland University of Technology where he completed his Master’s thesis, ‘A cause for animation: Harry Reade and the Cuban Revolution’.