The drawing power of children's fiction

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The Independent Online
A drawing of Pooh, Piglet and Robin fetched pounds 69,000 at Christie's in July; last year a Beatrix Potter made pounds 17,150. John Windsor finds that collectors of children's book illustrations are not playing with pocket money.

Whatever happened to Piglet's stick? In 1928, when EH Shepard first drew Piglet and Pooh sitting on a gate singing the tiddely-pom song, for AA Milne's book The House At Pooh Corner, he gave them both sticks, like batons.

But the drawing of his that was being offered by Christie's South Kensington this week, estimated pounds 12,000-pounds 18,000, showed Piglet with no stick.

The answer to the riddle is that Shepard insisted on selling his drawings, so that when the publishers, Methuen, decided in 1958 to make new printing blocks for a new edition of The House at Pooh Corner, they had to ask Shepard to drawn new pictures. It was then that, for reasons we shall never know, Shepard confiscated Piglet's stick.

The same year, the new, stickless drawing sold for 3 guineas at Foyles Art Gallery. Similar Shepard drawings were sold for the same pocket-money price.

Collectors of children's book illustration would fight more fiercely over the original drawing, with stick, than the later version. But Christie's South Kensington's Inken Haldane tells me she catalogues illustrations strictly according to quality - the later, stickless Shepard, for example, was "clear-cut, sharp, superbly done" - instead of according to edition, or whether the picture was published at all.

From the auctioneer's point of view, she explained, a well-known artist does not need evidence of publication in order to establish provenance.

But connoisseurs value more highly an illustration that has been published and pored over by countless tiny fingers, generating nostalgia.

The pencil and watercolour of two girls under cherry blossom by the illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), in the same sale, looks like a book illustration, but no book is identified in the catalogue. Greenaway was so prolific that it would take all but a connoisseur half a day of rummaging in the British Library to find out whether her painting was ever published.

If it could be sourced to a book, the pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 estimate might not change, but the bidding for it would be more enthusiastic. Sketches of Eeyore and chums, dashed off by Shepard for admirers and not rated by today's connoisseurs, can still be picked up for under pounds 500.

Not that children's book illustration is a market bursting with connoisseurs: many auction purchases end up framed on nursery walls, for the delectation of doting adults. "Yes, it's the original, actually."

An EH Shepard of Pooh, Piglet and Robin playing Pooh sticks fetched pounds 69,000 at Christie's South Kensington in July. There's nostalgia for you. A Beatrix Potter fetched pounds 17,150 there last year.

Investors in search of winning formulas might calculate that illustrations with the most adult appeal - such as the flowing, rather sexy Art Nouveau- ish lines of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) - would attract the broadest market and the highest prices. But toddlers never bid at auction. If it sells, it's adult stuff. Ms Haldane thinks that illustrations of toys and animals have more staying power than fictional characters that speak because there's more scope for fantasising about them.

As it happens, the markets for Rackham and Dulac have peaked while the furry creatures of Beatrix Potter and the toy furry creatures of EH Shepard go from strength to strength. Potter, of course, was an established illustrator before turning to children's books.

Bonhams, the London auctioneers, are making their debut in the children's book illustration market on Tuesday (11am) - South Ken have been holding dedicated sales for a decade - and have as their consultant Mike Heseltine, who founded the auction market for children's illustration while on the staff of Sotheby's, 20 years ago.

His records confirm that prices for Rackham and Dulac peaked around 1985. A Dulac watercolour of Eugenie and the Nightingale sold for pounds 26,400 in 1985, but could manage only pounds 32,190 at Sotheby's in October this year.

Similarly, Greenaway prices have levelled off after peaking in the mid- Eighties. Hence his modest estimate of pounds 600-pounds 800 in next week's sale for an original Greenaway pictorial border for September in the Almanack for 1891, showing five girls with baskets of flowers.

Proof of the unpredictability of the market is the sensational prices fetched by over 300 Noddy pictures by Harmsen Van Der Beek at Sotheby's Blyton centenary sale in October. They raised pounds 359,631, 95.42 per cent being sold by value.

Mr Heseltine says: "You never know when an artist is going to take off or reach a plateau."

Britain is pre-eminent in living children's book illustrators. They are a canny lot. They either sit on their pictures, refusing to sell, or hotfoot it to the London gallery of Chris Beetles, the ne plus ultra of dealers in original illustrations, who gets the best prices.

An exception is fantasy artist Mike Wilks, a 50-year-old south Londoner whose closely packed acrylics have a compulsive appeal for both children and adults - his The Ultimate Alphabet (1986) sold a quarter of a million copies and was WH Smith's most shop-lifted title.

Mr Heseltine and Sir Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber's librettist, have both written introductions to the catalogue of Wilks's current one-man show at the Gekoski Gallery - a sudden sell-off of his works, hoarded over a lifetime. Wilks's The Letter M, from The Ultimate Alphabet, is priced pounds 7,000. Prices for other acrylics range from pounds 3,500 to pounds 15,000.

Even more perplexing than Wilks's conundrums is Mr Heseltine's listing of the new generation of illustrators who hoard their work: Nicola Bayley, Roger Dean, Patrick Woodroffe, Kit Williams. Back in 1981, he sold a tiny Bayley's picture of a mouse for pounds 350 at Sotheby's. He last sold a Woodroffe 10 years ago.

The big contemporary names on sale at Chris Beetles' are Quentin Blake and Michael Foreman - who are both art-school trained. Blake used to be head of the illustration department at the RCA and Foreman has lectured widely at London art schools.

In Beetles' current show, there are some of Blake's snappy, throw-away ink drawings for pounds 750-pounds 1,450 and technically accomplished Foreman watercolours for pounds 950-pounds 1,150. But if you want to buy from Mr Heseltine's list of un- commercial artists, you will have to doorstep them.

Mike Wilks, entry by appointment at the Gekoski Gallery, Pied Bull Yard, 15a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1 (0171-404 6676). Chris Beetles, The Illustrators, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, St James's, London SW1 (0171-839 7551).

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