Inspiration, Illustration and Childhood Memories

It’s Monday and the weather gods have decided to leave the tap on for us mere mortals.  On rainy days like these I’m often glad to have the chance to do some research, or sift through bits of information I’ve gathered at pace and not had the chance to read at leisure.  Over the past week or two I’ve been out visiting a few exhibitions and libraries, scanning words, snapping pictures, and feeling yet more inspired by others’ creative work.

One of my first stops was the library at Chelsea College of Arts – a new one for me.  As ever, I don’t know why I haven’t been before.  I happened to turn up during a 50p book sale, so of course I had a good rummage!  Here’s a video of the main bookcase for knitwear and crochet, happily sandwiched in between textile history and design:

It’s amazing how quickly one slots back into student habits when visiting a library.  One of mine was sitting in the aisle reading books, forgetting that libraries provide tables, chairs and other items of furniture designed for comfort and situated by windows!

ChelseaLibraryFeetAtNorburyBook ChelseaLibraryMcGregorInsideCoverAs you can see from this image, nothing has changed.  Eventually, realising that the pile of books was building up around me, I thought to take them to one of said tables and have a proper look.  I quickly discovered a few of the primary sources for Barbara Walker’s collection of stitch libraries (FYI, available from Schoolhouse Press, or if you’re in London, the iKnit shop on Lower Marsh).  The bottom photo is here because I was taken by this photo of a Shetland  couple in their beautiful fairisles.  The loving smile on the husband’s face is a sight to behold.  You can tell that he’s spent many hours, over many years, marvelling at his wife and her knitting.

A couple of days later I found myself looking at illustration – two very different kinds, but both equally sentimental and nostalgic for me.  The Jewish Museum is showing a retrospective of Judith Kerr’s work, and at school I always used to rummage through the bookshelf looking for the Mog books.  They were a personal favourite because of our family cat; her character was nothing like Mog’s, but she was also a tabby, and that was enough!

JudithKerrMogIllustration JudithKerrRealMogI saw some of the artwork during an episode of Imagine some time ago, and I remember how captivated I was watching Kerr work in her studio.  She uses pencils only and has stuck with them from early childhood, but the movement and life that she captures in her illustrations is brilliant, even when the characters are standing still.  It’s less like a still life and more as though a moment has been captured with a camera – only that we have a drawing instead of a photograph.  The dynamic strokes of her pencil are clear for all to see, and made me think about how I could get movement into knitted stitches themselves.  I had a go at it for the Little Waterfalls tunic last year, and I think I’ll revisit that creative challenge at some point.

JudithKerrBombsOnAuntDainty1 JudithKerrBombsOnAuntDainty2 JudithKerrLifeSketches








The final stop was the House of Illustration for the Ladybird by Design exhibition – a must-see for anyone who grew up with these books!  Whilst in the shop I overheard the assistant telling a couple of visitors that, when the factory in Loughborough closed down, they just tossed EVERYTHING into a skip and didn’t bother with an archive.  Very luckily, the man who’d go on to be one of the main contributors to the exhibition was walking past, realised what was going on, and grabbed as much as he could carry before the skip slipped into oblivion.  I was so shocked I barely managed to be discreetly nosy!  So we have him to thank (his name wasn’t mentioned), as well as the families of the illustrators, who had kept their copies of the proofs and anything else they worked on, and anyone else who was happy to lend or donate their personal possessions.  For this reason (and the company’s current copyright policy, deeply ironic considering the story I’ve just told) I haven’t many photographs, but visitors could take pictures of the titles displayed in the breakout room:

LadybirdCovers1 LadybirdIllustration1The sneaky shot of the bees and the honeycomb is incredibly precise in its detail.  I had no idea how tightly organised and constrained the publishing process was for these books: because of this, Ladybird were able to maintain a retail price of £2.00 for over thirty years, until decimalisation in the early 1970s.  The clear communication and quality of information presented makes Ladybird books more valuable than ever, and re-reading some of them reminded me just how good they were for children – and for adults too.  Why should quality be compromised for adults?  I couldn’t help thinking of some awful, badly-written, never-to-be-touched-again books I had to read when I was studying.  The same goes for knitting patterns: poorly written ones are a red card and can make projects unnecessarily difficult.  It would be wonderful if information presented to adults was as thoughtfully arranged as it is for children.  The need is equal.

Of course, I had to have a souvenir from this exhibition.  My late grandmother was a keen gardener, and I remember keeping her company and helping out as only children can, whether with a toy watering can or by passing her a fork, the secateurs or a small shovel.  My knowledge of flowers stopped growing when she died.  Any wisdom I do have is thanks to her, I think, but I’ve always wanted to continue what she started with me.  This little book should help me on the way.  I’ve kept up the knitting, so why not the flowers?


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