This year's show takes us from Rowlandson and the Cruikshank family to recent graduates from the Royal College of Art, where there is a lively illustration course. Its students produce set designs for theatre and opera, learn to illustrate animated stories for children's television and do any amount of work for newspapers, magazines and books.
I don't like the first lot in the show. Rowlandson and his Georgian contemporaries are surely too boorish to be long tolerated, and it's interesting that their work is so keenly collected by politicians who are themselves intolerable boors. Good illustration, I hazard, has been best inspired first by the theatre and then by children's books. Beetles sagely remarks that 'the Victorian period was that in which illustration and the stage shared the greatest number of values'. And just as 19th-century theatre excelled in cod melodrama and pantomime, so illustration became more genial. The master here must be Sir John Tenniel, in his own way a knight of the stage. Some people prefer the more demotic and Dickensian work of John Leech, but between these two I'm not fussy.
The theatre runs through this exhibition, both overtly and as an influence. I suppose that those ponderous 19th-century Punch cartoons, the ones with lengthy dialogue attached, were related to the conventions of domestic comedy, as if the artist were illustrating a play. Beetles seems to prefer the later cartoonists, those with the zip and sophistication that entered illustration in the 1920s. However, he also considers the cartoonist as a social outsider. If people such as George Belcher, the first caricaturist to be elected a member of the RA, was a bucolic Victorian who survived into the 1940s there were other cartoonists - particularly Dyson, Bateman and Low - whose origins were Australasian. They brought bluntness to the business of being amusing and had no inbuilt respect for English mores.
Cartoonists tend to dislike modern art, the butt of many of their jokes. Resentment lies behind this attitude, so it's nice to find a really affable look at other artists in the work of Douglas Percy Bliss, who has been largely forgotten since his death in 1964. Bliss was a serious artist as well as an occasional cartoonist. This gives a note of tenderness and appreciation to his hilarious view of the ancient and arthritic Renoir, plugging away at the same old pictures while his young and buxom models indulgently observe his obsessions. Note the technique of this piece. It's a watercolour, but executed with such deftness that
you might take the black lines to have been done in pen and ink.
The pen is of course the illustrator's first instrument since it so readily gives itself to mechanical reproduction. And pen technique considered solely as technique is often a wonder in these drawings. Robert Anning Bell, Charles Robinson, Frederick Pegram, Frank Reynolds and Cyril Walter Hodges all perform feats of penmanship. Alas, their kind of virtuoso draughtsmanship has now disappeared. I am, like everyone else, an admirer of Ronald Searle. But I do not consider him a virtuoso in their mode. His line is a little too comic, spidery and content with its mannerisms. He contributes remarkable work: none the less the portrait of T S Eliot gives him away. You think that Searle can do anything with the pen. Then you find that he can't submit his style to the discipline of observing someone else's features.
Pen portraiture is a dying art, like so much else that is dying in art. Looking at the later part of the Beetles exhibition I sense that something else has now gone: nostalgia. Illustrators have always been committed to the new, the vivid, the here-and- now. Their work for newspapers proves it. But the methods of illustration also provided a satisfying wistfulness, initially for days of yore, the countryside and knights and ladies; later for things like steam locomotives, suburban tennis clubs and tea dances. This sort of nostalgia has also disappeared, gone for ever. We grown-ups can live without such subjects. I still want poetic and even soppy images from illustrators, because I want them for children.
The magic of old-style children's books has a number of followers, particularly in Michael Foreman (born 1938) and Paul Cox (born 1957). Beside their work the drawings for Postman Pat by Joan Hickson are bossy, as though children were no longer allowed to be sensitive and dreamy. I put this down to television and its increasing use of puppets, surely a crude substitute for the things formerly valued in illustration. God be praised, Beetles does not show puppets. They go with television; illustration goes with reading.
It must be the case that the best illustration responds to literature. That is, it is inspired by an art form on which one reflects. There has never been any tradition of good illustration of sport. It's too fast, competitive and public. The very slowness and privacy of reading helps the illustrator to a kind of collusion with the reader. This works best for children. Which of us cannot remember the feeling that in some treasured book the illustration was done for one person alone - you. Many great British illustrators have conspired with solitary children. Hence the importance of the Pre- Raphaelite tradition in illustration, in which the lonely child is both celebrated and lamented.
Honor Charlotte Appleton's 'She Danced and Could not Help Dancing' is a perfect example of this genre, balanced between nursery illustration and Pre-Raphaelitism in its style, equally balanced between childhood and adolescence in its theme. Appleton (1879-1951) is the sort of artist the Beetles gallery loves to resurrect. If we knew more about her long career - not described in any reference book I can find, apart from the Beetles catalogues - then we might discover all sorts of things about the role of art in the lives of young people. Similarly with Estella Canziani (1687-1964), Hilda Cowham (1873-1964) and Katherine Cameron (1874-1965). All were genuine artists, if only in a minor mode.
Perhaps I don't know about them because I have never read girls' books. The role of women in illustration is a subject someone ought to explore. For boys, the jolliest things are probably by Heath Robinson and Edward Ardizzone, whose individuality is of the sort that all illustrators seek. I'm not sure of the origins of Ardizzone's style. The picture above is a late work, and in it are the tiniest but still telling hints of Cezanne.
Chris Beetles, 8 & 10 Ryder St, SW1 (071-839 7551), to 24 Dec.