Doubleday, £25, 240pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Playing the Shape Game, By Anthony Browne with Joe Browne
Friday 08 April 2011
This lovingly compiled book should soon persuade readers that Anthony Browne, the current Children's Laureate, is an illustrator of genius. Drawing on the surrealism of Magritte and the narrative powers of Victorian genre paintings, every detail in his many picture books tells its own story. Foregrounded figures are regularly explained by the various goings-on behind their backs, with "spot the difference" a constant theme as one illustration succeeds another, often outwardly similar until readers have a closer look.
Browne's particular forte is his depiction of gorillas so compellingly lifelike that younger readers on first viewing sometimes close a page in alarm. These are partially based upon his own father, "a big, strong, quite fierce-looking man, with an aggressive streak which he saved for the rugby field, the boxing ring and the war zone". But Browne remembers him with nothing but affection.
As a child, he saw this father die in front of him from heart failure. Years later, in his monumental retelling of King Kong, the final picture of the dead ape is almost unbearably moving. His father's spirit lives on in the thousands of other gorillas Browne has since drawn, sometimes taking main stage on the page but at other moments popping up in tiny detail, whether squashed up as a hamburger or concealed in a coat hanging in the background.
The book's title refers to a game played during childhood with his older brother: one draws a shape and the other has to turn it into something else. The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott used a similar technique in his "squiggle game", with young patients who found it easier to draw their feelings than talk about them.
Browne is more interested in art as a pathway to creative humour rather than to personal therapy, and the wit he brings into his pictures is of the highest order. Many of his best illustrations are reproduced here in full colour, with the accompanying text providing a useful commentary when it comes to searching out trees turning into bodies, kettles into cats, or lamp-posts into flowers.
His progress as an illustrator started after art college at the Manchester Infirmary, producing medical illustrations based on sketches taken during full-scale operations. Three meticulously drawn sequences from a liver operation are included here, but none from the time when, finally tiring of this job, he would add hidden figures showing "little people clambering out of an open thorax, swinging from a ribcage or peering into an ear".
By now it was high time to move on, swapping packed lunches eaten in the mortuary for work in advertising, which he hated. Moving on to greetings cards, he was soon spotted by a canny publisher. His subsequent career saw him twice win the Kate Greenaway Medal before becoming the first British illustrator to be chosen for the mightily prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2000.
Browne's brilliance as an illustrator is not alas matched by an ability to produce lively prose. This text, written in conjunction with his son Joe, often groans under the strain of its verbosity. But in between references to the "fluctuant nature" of the relationship of words to pictures or the clarity of an illustration's "communicative attributes", there is enough fascinating detail from and about a great artist to make the journey worthwhile. Devoted fans have taken their own trip around his work many times; new readers should start with one of his numerous picture books without delay. They will not be disappointed.
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