Drawing on the past

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What could be more nostalgic than the pictures from our favourite childhood books? Colin Wheeler, The Independent's daily cartoonist (above), visits an exhibition which gives us the opportunity to recapture the images that inspired a million children's dreams and fantasies.

From the cute and sentimental work of Mabel Lucy Attwell to the disturbing images of Mervyn Peake by way of saucy postcards by Donald McGill and Victorian fairies, the Chris Beetles gallery in London's St James's is an eclectic display of an almost lost art.

Although illustrated children's books proliferate today, the tradition of adding pictures to the text of adult novels seems to have passed. Even in Dickens's time the images for The Pickwick Papers, which were among the best ever created, were reduced in number or omitted altogether to save money. It was a loss then and a shame now. Who knows what the right illustrator could now add to, say, Martin Amis's novels?

Some of the artists - there are almost 700 works on show - will be unknown to many people, particularly those from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibition explains how illustration has developed over the past 200 years, citing the importance of publications such as Radio Times, some art schools and 19th-century sketch clubs, as well as the most important individuals. Cartoons are also on view, aptly divided into "political" and "funny".

There are early comic drawings by Arthur Rackham and later fairy story illustrations for which he is best known. His fine studies of young women in chalk and pencil reveal how his commercial work was informed by real artistic ability. Heath Robinson, who has given his name to any sort of gimcrack contraption, has a classic drawing entitled: "How to dispense with servants in the bedroom", which is complete with every imaginable aid to laziness that could possibly be created from pulleys, levers and bits of string.

Sometimes an illustrator and an author seem made for each other. E.H . Shepard and Kenneth Grahame combined to produce The Wind in the Willows and are a perfect match. Shepard's tiny but spirited depiction of Ratty, Mole and Toad chasing a recalcitrant horse or Toad dressed as a washerwoman are a little part of literary history. Another drawing by Shepard showing an elegant and distrait woman pursued by her anxious little boy on a tricycle is quite brilliant.

Of the several cartoonists included, Max Beebohm, the Edwardian artist whose wispily-drawn caricatures seem to prefigure James Thurber, is represented by drawings of politicians and newspapermen which are gentle in mood but acutely observed.

Two of the best illustrators from more recent times are Mervyn Peake and Edward Ardizzone. The latter had the gift of creating anthropomorphic animals that appeal to children and have charm without the cloying sentimentality that often ruins work in this genre. There are illustrations of the seaside, launderettes, football matches, pubs and sailing boats and swimming pools that all have a freshness and freedom of treatment. They create the feel of their time, the Fifties and Sixties, with uncanny authenticity. The watercolour of a little pleasure boat filling up with day-trippers for a row round the bay and a scene of an open-air swimming pool have the vigour and observation of character of a Rowlandson.

Mervyn Peake is a rarity: he was an important novelist as well as gifted artist. There are some good examples of his imaginative work here as well as some excellent studies from life. A dark and powerful study of a Piccadilly prostitute could also be a character from one of his novels, but there is also a frothier drawing of a young women reclining on a sofa chattering on the telephone which is observed with affection and wit.

For those who prefer something with a sweeter taste, Mabel Lucy Attwell's rosy-cheeked children are the epitome of cuteness. She became a household name in the Twenties and her work was used on posters, calendars and wall plaques, and as figurines. She created a business of promoting her images and their spin-offs whose success was on a par with Disney's today. In a similar vein and from the same era there are animal illustrations, particularly those of George Ernest Studdy, whose pooches in various comic predicaments were a tremendous popular success. It is sometimes difficult to imagine who now collects pictures of cartoon dogs, especially at pounds 2,000 and more each.

There is an enormous range of quality in this exhibition. The best approaches minor art. The less good is the ordinary hack work that all illustrators do to eat. An E.H. Shepard will cost you pounds 12,500, or a drawing by Mary Tourtel, the creator of Rupert, first published by the Daily Express, is pounds 2,250. A cartoon by the excellent Larry can be had for only pounds 175. It is a bargain.

The British Art of Illustration 1800-1997, Chris Beetles Gallery, Ryder St, London (0171-839 7551)