Art / Every picture tells a fairy story: Dalya Alberge on British illustrators' enduring fairytale romance with the world of the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time there lived an artist. His name was David Hockney. He loved to read fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and one day he drew some pictures of their stories. He drew and drew. He drew so well that people from all the kingdoms on the earth wanted to see his pictures. They were greatly astonished and delighted and wanted to see them again and again . . .

. . . And again, from this month. Rapunzel, Rumpelstilzchen and Rinkrank come into the real world in a South Bank touring exhibition of Hockney's 39 etchings to six Grimm fairy tales. The set was published in 1969, in a limited edition of 100 by Petersburg Press, and as a pounds l miniature version which proved so popular that some 60,000 copies were sold. To this day Hockney regards the etchings as one of his major successes.

It was as a student in 1961 that he first came under the Grimms' spell. He recalls that it was their 'very, very simple, direct, straightforward language and style' that caught his imagination. He found himself reading one story after another - eventually devouring all 220 of them.

What would Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have made of Hockney's interpretations of their tales? Hockney's are, of course, a far cry from Cruikshank's humorous illustrations, which so delighted them. In 1823, a year before the images were published in the first English translation, the Grimms described Cruikshank as 'light of touch and clever' and without equal among German illustrators.

At first glance, it seems inappropriate to refer to Hockney's images as 'illustrations' as they do not seem to illustrate the text, to tell the stories in pictures. But he was responding to specific areas of text. For example, in The Little Sea Hare, the image of a boy crouching inside a fish not only conveys a sense of fairy-story fantasy: it illustrates a passage in which the princess who could see everything from her tower could be won by any suitor who could successfully hide from her. A number of Hockney's etchings are disappointingly slight and humourless. But, like the tales themselves, they are to be read on different levels. There is a visual pun in The Boy who Left Home to Learn Fear: a tall rock surrounded by stones is Hockney's Magrittian interpretation of the sexton disguised as a ghost standing 'still as a stone'.

Hockney is among a string of artists in some 60 countries who have interpreted the Grimm tales since they were first published in 1812. Best- known are the British illustrations, including the impish scenes of Cruikshank, the mischievous fairies and gnarled gnomes of Arthur Rackham, the wicked caricatures of Mervyn Peake and the psychological symbolism of Michael Foreman. The American-born Maurice Sendak, in his 1970 edition, captured the dark, psychological depths of the tales. The Grimms' biographer, Ruth Michaelis-Jena, suggests we can learn something about different nations from their approach to illustrating Grimm: Scandinavian artists have featured troll-like creatures in their versions, Czechs have called on their great puppet tradition in theirs and the French have made their Grimm pretty and elegant.

Among younger illustrators following in fairy footsteps is Alan Lee, who says that the beauty of the Grimm tales for the artist is that there is 'so little description in the text, you can do anything you like as an artist. You use them as a starting point for your own fantasies. It's a lot easier than a novel. I've just illustrated Lord of the Rings which poses all kinds of problems. You have to be responsible to the author's vision, and the readers' expectations.'

Indeed, how the artist chooses to interpret the tales matters little, because the notion of staying 'faithful to the original' does not apply. The Grimms were recording folk stories related to them in an oral tradition going back centuries: memory and embellishment would have changed the 'original' at every telling. With stories such as Hansel and Gretel, the Grimms even combined several versions they had heard. And then the Victorians adapted the stories, taming or omitting the parts they thought children should neither see nor hear.

It is only recently that historians and translators have returned to the Grimms' first 1812 publication in German. Among them is Brian Alderson, a children's book historian who organised an exhibition on the Grimms' British illustrators at the British Library in 1985. He mentions, for example, how later publications changed the moment when the gnome in Rumpelstilzchen is trying to free his leg from a hole in the ground and tears himself in half. Hockney responded to this scene by breaking up the single image into a sequence of four that ends with the gnome exploding into little bits - 'really an abstracted picture,' says Hockney, 'his lips floating about in the air, and an eye and an eyelash'.

Hockney, as an artist, had the freedom to play such visual games. But illustrators working to a publisher's brief may be unable to include such sections in their work: we mock the Victorians for their Victorian attitudes, but we too exercise a degree of censorship in our fairy tales. Sally Grindley, editorial director of the Books for Children club, says that they cannot sell Grimm unless the stories are watered down. Yet, against the violence of the Ninja turtles and some television cartoons which parents do allow their children to watch, the gnome's fate seems relatively painless. Grindley suggests that, unlike the written word and picture, television is seen as ephemeral by some parents.

In the belief that it is adults, not children, who wince at the grimmer bits of Grimm and other tales, P J Lynch, an illustrator inspired by Rackham and the Pre-Raphaelites, has included them in his fairy tale anthology for Sainsbury's, with a text by Sarah Hayes. 'We've kept the gory bits,' he says, 'like Snow White's evil stepmother being punished at the end by wearing red hot shoes and dancing until she dies.'

There is too an element of political correctness in the publishing houses' attitude to fairy tales. One editor, who thought it would be politically correct to remain anonymous, admitted that she would think twice about publishing Hansel and Gretel. 'A story about a stepmother dumping her children just wouldn't seem right,' she explains.

However, while Alderson and others return to the German originals, Tony Ross is going back to the tradition of passing on stories by word of mouth. He both illustrates and writes the text to fairy tales he heard or read as a child, without rereading them: 'I tell them as I remember them.' While aware that some of the tales go back hundreds of years, he is bringing them into the 20th century by introducing features to which the modern child can relate: in Ross's cartoon-like version of Grimm's Mrs Goat and her seven little kids (Andersen Press), one of the kid-goats wears Walkman headphones and the wolf is wearing Doctor Martens. 'But he's still a wolf,' he says, 'who eats little kids unashamedly.' Although Ross's is a picture-dominated book with a simple but lively text for the younger child, the morals found in the Grimms' tales are still there.

As Chris Kloet, children's editorial director of Victor Gollancz, points out, this was never a written or visual culture. 'People took what they needed from it.' She reminds us that the Grimms were picking up tales intended for adults rather than children.

Over the past decade, as prices for original paintings and works on paper have escalated, the market for buying the relatively inexpensive original fairy tale illustrations has flourished. David Wootton of the Chris Beetles Gallery, which specialises in illustration, says that while a Rackham illustration can fetch some pounds 27,000, a contemporary work can sell for up to pounds 6,000. If the market holds its own, it should ensure that contemporary artists live happily ever after.

Hockney's Grimm's Fairy Tales are showing at the Royal Festival Hall, London (071-921 0600) to 9 May; then on tour to Southampton, Yeovil, Aberystwyth, Salisbury, Accrington, Rochester, Dunfermline (details: 071-921 0887/8). Chris Beetles, 8 & 10 Ryder St London SW1 (071-839 7551).

(Photographs omitted)