Childhood revisited: Jane Richards hails the illustrators of Rupert Bear, Stig of the Dump and other children's favourites

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The Independent Culture
E H Shepherd, the man responsible for drawing Winnie the Pooh, often said (without bitterness) that he and his friends set out to earn their living as painters and finished as illustrators. He cannily recognised that his strength lay in line rather than colour. This was, of course, to the delight of millions of children for whom his delicate line drawings for A A Milne's Winnie the Pooh are as legendary as the stories themselves. But, as the exhibition 'The British Art of Illustration' at the Chris Beetles Gallery reveals, Shepherd was also a talented oil painter. 'The Only Child', a charming oil painting in the manner of his Christopher Robin studies, is on sale here for pounds 17,500.

One of the many joys of Chris Beetles' annual 'Art of Illustration' exhibitions has been the light it throws on the lesser-known talents of well-known illustrators, but the main point of his shows has always been to celebrate illustration itself. Beetles was alerted to the 'undervalued and neglected' art of book illustration in the early 1980s. 'I'm quite bookish,' he admits, 'but I'm not obsessed with book production. I don't get too excited about the edition, the covering and the printing.' Instead he began to 'collect illustrations with a passion' and 12 years ago mounted an exhibition and sale, producing a lavish and extensively researched catalogue to accompany the show.

He's the first to admit that he's not a purist. There are as many Postman Pats, Roobarb and Custards and Raymond Briggs's The Snowman here as Victorian Arthur Rackhams and Edwardian Heath Robinsons. Among the most popular buys are Rupert the Bear drawings and you can have fun trying to spot which of Rupert's five illustrators penned which picture: from the original line drawing by Mary Tourtel through to full colour effects by current illustrator John Harrold, Rupert, with sweater, checked trousers and matching scarf, has always looked exactly the same.

And if you think people buy children's book illustrations for their kids you'd be wrong. Beetles finds that parents come in to buy a drawing ostensibly for their children's nursery, 'when I know they're buying for themselves.' He pinpoints the 'disposable income' stage of people's lives 'when they attempt to buy back their childhood'.

Edward Ardizzone's drawings for Clive King's Stig of the Dump are a very good example. Few children who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies will fail to remember Ardizzone's atmospheric drawings even if they never got round to reading the story. Here, as with E H Shepherd's Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows, the words and images are virtually interdependent, but Ardizzone's drawings bring a faintly sinister edge to the atmosphere.

And there is often a favourite illustrator for a specific story. As Chris Beetles points out, 'A lot of people want to buy Mabel Lucie Atwell's Peter Pan illustrations because they grew up with them - even though the Arthur Rackham version is actually more famous.' And E H Shepherd? 'He has to have been the hardest act to follow.'

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(Illustrations omitted)