Next week the original painting for the cover to the 1982 edition of The Lord of the Rings goes on sale for the first time. The artist, Roger Garland, who contributed more than 40 paintings for the book between 1982 and 1985, has never before been convinced of the financial merits of selling these particular paintings, and admits he has no idea how to price them. To this end he is only selling one painting to "test the market" as he puts it, although there will be some rough sketches on sale as well. "To be honest, I've always struggled to find a market for my work," he says.
Given the current fever for all things Middle Earth, that last statement initially seems surprising. It's not just this new obsession, however, that has finally precipitated a favourable climate for Garland - whose mystical paintings capture the elusive wonder of Tolkien's fantastical world beautifully - but the recent rise in profile of illustration itself. Garland's work is appearing in an annual exhibition organised by The Illustration Cupboard, a company established to deal in and promote original children's illustration, and which has grown almost exponentially since it was established by John Huddy in 1996. "I couldn't have done this 15 years ago," says Huddy. "The market wouldn't have sustained it."
Children's illustration is a curious beast: generally considered the poor brother of fine art - if indeed it is considered art at all - yet part of a tradition that stretches back to the psalters produced by the Anglo-Saxon liturgy in the ninth century. Putting pictures to words is something the British have always been particularly good at, from the Medieval bestiaries - illustrated fables of mythical creatures - and the illuminated manuscripts in monasteries through to the decorative work of William Blake and the superlative fairy pictures of the Victorian artist Arthur Rackham. Long departed from adult fiction (the Scottish author Alasdair Gray is a living exception), the genre today tends to be perceived as largely functional. And even though the work of artists such as Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs is adored in its own right, illustration has never had its own specialist gallery space in this country, unlike countries such as Japan and the US, where it is taken very seriously indeed. Recently its fortunes have started changing however, and it is now starting to pick up both the respect it previously lacked - and the commercial approval. An original EH Shepard can fetch upwards of £80,000, a figure that surely bodes well for other, currently less well known artists working today.
Huddy - who set up The Illustration Cupboard in order both to challenge people's perceptions of the genre and develop a niche in the market - pinpoints two reasons why this new interest should have come about. "New technology in the 1960s meant that full-page colour illustration could suddenly be produced on a mass scale. Books such as The Hungry Caterpillar were part of this revolution that produced a whole wave of illustrated children's books. And the generation that grew up with those books, both the new fiction and the classics, are now in a position to buy them. Nostalgia is a commodity all on its own, of course, but children's illustrations have a particular emotional charge that send you straight back to a particular place and time in childhood. They are like smell in that respect. Second, the rising cost of Old Masters has meant that people who want to invest in art are being forced elsewhere, to applied arts such as sculpture and photography, and of course, illustration."
There is perhaps, something potentially infantile about desiring pictures that illustrate stories that are ostensibly simple. But this denies the imaginative realm which both picture and story inhabit, and which can be as potent for people when adults as it was when they were children. Furthermore, the skill required to evoke those places - be they the surreal day-to-day of a Roald Dahl story, the droll, cosy absurdism of AA Milne, or the highly complex universe of JRR Tolkien - is thoroughly "adult". Garland, who admits he has always been drawn to the fantastical, thanks to a childhood in the countryside making up his own stories, started off in thrall to both the French Symbolist painters and the mysterious narrative suggestiveness of the Pre-Raphaelites, before finding himself drawn to Arthurian folklore. All three powerfully inform his work. Angela Barrett meanwhile, a successful children's artist who has illustrated books by Susan Hill among others, and who is selling a wondrous painting of A Midsummer Night's Dream from her illustrated Shakespeare's Stories at the exhibition, works in the same exquisitely detailed, ethereal style as Arthur Rackham. Both artists's painterly illustrations are the complete opposite of, say, the humorous line drawings of Blake, but all three exemplify the double function of children's illustration: to tell a story, and to trigger the imagination.
Being sensitive to the part played by the reader in bringing the words on the page to life is, of course, a singular responsibility when illustrating children's books. Barrett says she never forgets there are three people involved when she illustrates a work - the writer, the reader and herself. She loves the visual image's potential for ambiguity, too. "You can make the most domestic object seem very sinister in illustration," she says. Garland, meanwhile, admits that he initially balked at illustrating Tolkien since he found the books were such complete visual worlds in themselves, but says now that he is simply happy he "got" to them before Peter Jackson did on celluloid with his current Lord of the Rings trilogy. "I do detect a modicum of influence of my work on his vision," he says. "Although I think he has done a terrific job."
The rise of celluloid and, in particular, animation could seem to present its own complex challenges to the relationship between stories and pictures that has habitually been the preserve of the book, but that would be to ignore the vivid visual connections we forge with the spoken word at an early age and the way we retain them as a direct emotional link with our past. Huddy surely isn't alone in his refusal to watch the 1978 cartoon of The Lord of The Rings because he thought it would, "ruin my own personal pictures of the books". And most people, given the choice, would take EH Shepard's original drawings of Winnie the Pooh over the Disney animated version any day. Other artists, such as Raymond Briggs, get round the problem by animating their own work - Huddy is selling a cell from the animated film of the Snowman and expects it to get £1,500. Barrett, on the other hand, believes that TV and cinema can feed a children's visual understanding of a story. "I sat glued to the TV as a child, and I still do," she says. "I love the fleeting images and often draw from them in fact. If anything TV makes children more demanding about what they see."
Huddy is determined to bring the current cream of children's illustrators out from the book and into the gallery, where he believes they deserve a permanent place. Among those he particularly champions are John Lawrence - whose hand-painted wood cuts adorn the forthcoming new Philip Pullman book Lyra's Oxford and which will also be for sale - Shirley Hughes, Anthony Browne, and Angela Barrett. "All these artists have an enormous international following," Huddy says. "Hughes and Browne have just had dedicated exhibitions held for them in Moscow and Mexico." Can he define precisely what makes the work of these artists so special then? His answer is simple. "Magic."
The Illustration Cupboard's winter exhibition is at The Air Gallery, 32 Dover Street, London W13 (www.illustrationcupboard.com), 3-15 NovemberReuse content