A few years ago I had a small run-in with the world of British illustration. The Association of Illustrators asked me to give the critic's prize – a special cross-category award – in their annual highlights book, Images, and also to add a brief critical appreciation. They said I could pick from the pictures shortlisted for each category. I thought, to be on the safe side, I'd better look through all the illustrations that would be in all the categories. My heart sank.
Partly because I've worked from time to time as an illustrator myself, I'm all up for the cause of illustration. I don't insist it should be taken as seriously as fine art. One of illustration's strengths is that it can thrive without being "taken seriously". But I do think it should get a bit of critical attention from time to time, to point out its merits or keep it up to the mark. Illustration is a cause that needs to be supported, and sometimes that means being helped.
Looking through those images in Images, I saw a cry for help. Obviously it was meant to be a celebratory volume. But on this occasion a helpful criticism would not be at all celebratory. And in the nicest possible way I tried not to hold back. I said that a strain of whimsy seemed to have become default mode for commercial illustration. Whatever the topic or medium, the tone of the treatment was cosy-jolly-twee.
I said it was historically normal for illustration and fine art to borrow vigorously from one another. But the art that had been dominant in the UK for the last decades appeared to have made almost no impact. Odd, because the sangfroid and conceptual sharpness of recent art – and its use of oblique relationships between image and idea, or image and text – seemed to be things that illustrators could very profitably learn from. Their pictorial uses of text were especially feeble.
Some contemporary artists such as David Shrigley and Adam Dant deployed illustrational techniques. But I suspected that illustration itself had become a haven for visual artists seeking to escape from what contemporary art was now. And I gave the prize to an image that at least wasn't doing that.
It was quite difficult to get them to print these severe remarks in the annual, but in the end they did. And they later arranged a panel-plus-audience, very well attended, to discuss or at any rate to disperse the issues raised. I can't remember what conclusions we came to. But my remaining feeling was: you don't seem to know how good illustration can be. You need some better role models. And there are some.
There's a case for seeing illustration as actually the strongest vein of British art. Its range has been very diverse – visionary, empirical, humorous. It operates at a slight distance from painting and fine art generally. But the name would cover Hogarth's moral engravings, Stubbs's anatomical studies, Blake's apocalyptic scenes, Thomas Bewick's woodcut vignettes, the cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson, John Tenniel's pictures for Alice, Edward Lear's nonsense doodles, Aubrey Beardsley's decadent images, Max Beerbohm's caricatures, and the work of Arthur Rackham, Eric Ravilious, HM Bateman, Wyndham Lewis and Donald McGill.
The category is clearly mobile. It can veer from avant-garde graphics to vulgar postcards to spooky book-plates. The thread that runs through this line of picture-making is a "literary" orientation. There's some link to text or story, actual or notional. Indeed, British illustrators have often been people with dual visual-verbal talents: Blake, Lear, Beerbohm, Lewis, for instance, and all the cartoonists who do their own captions. The images Rudyard Kipling and Tolkien added to their tales shouldn't be overlooked either, and it's even possible to admire the drawings of Stevie Smith and Alasdair Gray.
Constraint is essential to illustration. The thing that it illustrates provides its oyster-grit. Its creative life is in the tension between picture and the job it's doing. But, equally, illustration shouldn't lose touch with what's going on in fine art. It mustn't become a place of stylistic safety. True, anyone might weary of the rudeness and cool of contemporary art. But if – in reaction – whimsy, cuteness, tweeness, quirkiness and general charm become the dominant language, then the stream of illustration has become a pond.
Of course, as theirs is a brief-based art, the vitality of illustrators is partly driven by the confidence that their employers put in them. Inspiration depends on outlet. And at the moment the main outlets for the illustrator's art are not wholly encouraging – chiefly it's children's books (yes, some of them are great), and cookbooks, and general book covers, and very miscellaneous employment cropping up in newspapers and magazines and adverts and postcards.
Still, illustrators are trying to make their own confidence. There's a project called the House of Illustration, masterminded by the veteran illustrator Quentin Blake. It will eventually become a new gallery of illustration, to be sited in the King's Cross development. In the meantime it's a campaign, making propaganda for illustration through showcase exhibitions.
There's one at Dulwich Picture Gallery now, called What Are You Like? It's based on an anonymous Victorian illustration, a self-description game, with that contemporary-sounding title. It has eight frames – eight written headings and eight pictures answering them: favourite motto (two stools), favourite occupation (dancing) special aversion (centipede), favourite place (bath) favourite dish (pineapple) – you get the idea.
Forty-five people, professional illustrators plus some artists and some celebs, have been invited to make an image along those lines. You can see associative self-portraits by Peter Blake, Posy Simmonds, Andrew Marr, Mary Fedden, Brian Eno, Glen Baxter, Marion Deuchars, Eric Carle (The Hungry Caterpillar), Lauren Child (Charlie and Lola), David Shrigley and Philip Pullman (not, it turns out, one of the great writer/draughtsmen).
There are variations you can play on the idea, like combining all the images into a single scene, but not many. Shrigley draws snakes as the answer to every question. Deuchars does the planet Earth for "favourite transport". But obviously this is not picture-making designed to produce any great revelations or jokes or brilliance. It's been chosen as a kind of "What shall I draw, Mum?" scheme, a bottom-line, non-specific illustration brief that anyone can take on without much difficulty.
Illustration, what's it like? Well, look what it's doing. I'd like to back the House of Illustration. But it's promoting the cause here as a traditional parlour game, a game that both pro and am can play together. It's making out that it's a nice, charming, floppy, amiable, homely activity, frankly nothing special. It's back in default mode. While what it should be doing is raising its sights and its claims. Special aversion? Favourite dish? Would William Blake or James Gillray or Aubrey Beardsley or even William Heath Robinson have thought that a reason to lift their pens? Before it gets its own gallery, illustration could remember it has sometimes been a name for genius.
What Are You Like? Self-Revealing Artworks By People in the Public Eye, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254), to 18 January