Brian Wildsmith was a children's book illustrator, whose brightly coloured works are instantly recognisable and much loved. His bright scenes, acute observation and rich detail must have burst into postwar Britain and injected real excitement and beauty. He died in September 2016, and his work is celebrated in a new exhibition in The Story Museum, showcasing original illustrations by Wildsmith, and by some of the next generation of illustrators who were influenced by him.
For many illustrators, showing just the pictures of a story might not make much sense. But Wildsmith went in for rich pictures which often show tension, or such a lot of detail that they seem to contain a whole narrative. He is probably best known for his illustrations of animals, and there are plenty of pictures here paying tribute to this theme. His animals are distinctive, realistic, and really animalistic, with no disneyfication. "Cat!" yelled my son (aged 2) across the room. It was a lion, and he'd picked out the wild feline stare.
The other main strand of Wildsmith's work was religious stories, and some illustrations from The Easter Story are a perfect example. The backgrounds are sparer with more white space so that the figures stand out. Wildsmith depicted people as beautifully as animals.
Around the corner are some works by other illustrators, with descriptions of how Wildsmith influenced them. Of course, there's a lot of colour, and a lot of animals, but it is interesting to see the difference in this group. There are old friends like Anthony Browne, and David McKee's iconic Elmer. But for me the most direct descendant of Wildsmith's style was Jo Empson, whose book Rabbityness was Wildsmithian in both realness of rabbit and explosion of colour.
This is a relatively small exhibition: big for The Story Museum in that it is all around the largest room, but small because with more than 80 books to his name any exhibition about Wildsmith could be quite enormous, and you feel for the rest of the alphabet, the jungle inhabitants and all the other artworks that aren't there. But it is perfect for children, and it feels like a grown up exhibition. A good introduction to galleries and art, and of course there is an opportunity to respond, adding your own artwork to a patchwork wall.
All in all a rich new addition to the Story Museum's existing works, and a good way to brighten up a grey day.