Who do you think they are: Public figures put their personalities on paper

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Dulwich Picture Gallery has asked public figures from Brian Eno to Philip Pullman to put their personalities on paper.

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

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines