I feel I have known Edward Ardizzone since being absorbed by his work in childhood. Later, but when I was still quite young as a writer, I was approached to produce a biography of him. The commission came to nothing, to my great regret, and I never met him. By the time I married into his extended family, he was dead.
Ardizzone’s world, as he presents it, is a most agreeable place, well-mannered and ultimately safe, even when dangerous things are happening in it. His pubs and studios and cluttered Edwardian interiors are welcoming places; though tarts may fight in the street, as he observed when a small boy, and brawl in the pubs he frequented as a young man, no lasting damage is done, but they are recorded. In his books lone heroes come through the worst of storms, and villains are eventually defeated. His line is often reminiscent of Rowlandson’s draughtsmanship, but it is genial rather than acid, and more often than not his figures – notably his own – are rounded rather than fiercely distorted. However, he, like his young heroes and heroines, had a nonchalant toughness beneath his amiable exterior. His war work has especial power because real horrors are often presented in pleasing settings. The aftermath of the landmine in the Sicilian olive grove comes to mind.
Ted Ardizzone had a remarkable capacity for doing two things at once, and not just any two things, but a pairing that would be quite impossible for almost anyone else. His daughter, Christianna Clemence, records how she would see him ‘sitting in a shady corner of some delectable garden, busily drawing a group of old ladies he had noticed in the pub that morning, while the girls playing in the lake beside him were being precisely observed and stored up for later. It was life interpreted and distilled for translation from three dimensions into two. His magnificent visual memory gave him the time to sort out the bits which really mattered.’
It is the working of that magnificent memory – which was not only visual – that makes his memoir of childhood and youth, The Young Ardizzone, such an abiding pleasure. The book should share a shelf with two other autobiographical charmers by contemporaries of his, one considerably older, the other six years younger. Both Drawn from Memory by his fellow illustrator E. H. Shepard and John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells demonstrate similarly clear retention of early experience, and because of this sympathy Ardizzone was the perfect illustrator for A Ring of Bells, the children’s version of Betjeman’s poetic account of growing up. These illustrations were among the Ardizzones that I knew best, since the Perceval ‘Mandeville’ who features in the tale with improbable heroism, was my uncle.
Ardizzone and Betjeman shared more than retentive memories. Both families mixed powerful English or Scottish strands with foreign elements and backgrounds in trade (or on the edge of what Ardizzone more precisely calls ‘the professional class of the time’), giving them a certain social ambivalence. This was exploited with relish by Betjeman in his poems, which anatomize the middle classes so exactly, and also by Ardizzone in his own books, in the creation of so many characters who are in some way outsiders. Both poet and artist had fathers who were – or who were deemed by them to be – unsympathetic to the arts. Betjeman’s father seemed distant, and Ardizzone had parents who were often actually absent, particularly his father.
The schooldays of the two also ran on parallel lines. Both attracted the attentions of bullies from time to time, and neither was a natural schoolboy, although for both there were happy periods as well. ‘I always hated crowded playrooms and passages, the smell of hot water pipes, chilblains and the complete lack of privacy,’ wrote Ardizzone. On the other hand, ‘though never very happy, I was rarely actively unhappy,’ and he records several distinctly happy term-time recollections, often to do with food or smells, such as picking mushrooms and consuming new-baked bread.
It testifies to the honesty of Ardizzone’s memories that he tells us only of his own experience of the Headmaster of Clayesmore School, Alexander Devine – a ‘great man though an eccentric’ – and nothing of ‘Lex’s’ wider career. As well as founding the school, Lex was a social and educational reformer, and in 1912‒13 he covered the Second Balkan War as special correspondent for the liberal Daily Chronicle. This experience led him to champion the romantic but doomed cause of Montenegrin independence after the First World War. Earlier in his journalistic days he had written on stabbings among Manchester youth gangs, and on the Olympics.
Memoirs such as this have a particular resonance for the now middle-aged. The childhood world described may have little in common with that of the current generation, but it is that of our parents, or perhaps grandparents, and we know it well at one remove through them. Indeed aspects of that Edwardian and inter-war period are not entirely divorced from what we ourselves experienced, or at least think we remember, in the 1950s and ’60s. This is an England in which the sun almost always shone. There are just two winter illustrations in The Young Ardizzone, and one of those is picturesquely abroad in Bruges. Summer holidays stretched for ever, and during them the countryside and all in it was ours. Bicycling to fish in distant streams; potting one’s sister with an air rifle; attempting to spit down the funnels of passing railway engines from bridges; Sharp’s creamy toffee; the mingled excitement and embarrassment of smart dances. Even in cities there was much more freedom for children.
There are many great children’s books, and many great illustrators of them, but comparatively few of which the author is also the artist. Two of the outstanding names among those few are Beatrix Potter and Edward Ardizzone. In their work words and images cannot really be separated. Remember how the filmed ballet of The Tales of Beatrix Potter – for all its charm – was diminished by presenting her vision without her voice.
Of course The Young Ardizzone is not a children’s book, rather a book about childhood intended for adults, but here, as in the Lucy and Little Tim series, the integration of words and images is complete. As a work of art the text alone, admirable as it is, would not be in the same league. Anyone experiencing it as an audio-book would miss a great deal.
In one respect this memoir goes beyond either Shepard, who deals only with his childhood in Drawn from Memory, or Betjeman, who concludes Summoned by Bells with his less than glorious university career. Ardizzone, who failed to get into the army in 1918 because of a misdiagnosed aortic murmur, went virtually straight from school into employment. So he continues his story for a number of years more, until, to his father’s dismay, he finally becomes an artist.
The artistic strain in the family came not from the Ardizzones but through Ted’s mother, who was descended from Gainsborough’s friend, the painter John Joshua Kirby. She was herself a talented watercolourist and needlewoman, and she also read to her children, especially Dickens, which they adored ‘and adored most of all the sentimental bits. I doubt if any of us, my mother included, were quite dry-eyed at the death of little Paul Dombey.’ Lex Devine also read aloud to his junior pupils at Clayesmore, and these pleasurable experiences undoubtedly helped to form the future creator of children’s books.
Ted was supposed to follow his father as a telegraph engineer, and to that end worked at various clerking jobs. However he was always drawing, and after evening classes at the Westminster School of Art under Walter Bayes and Bernard Meninsky, he took the plunge in 1926. Meninsky encouraged the natural coupling of art and beer: ‘The real teaching came after class when we would retire to the local pub. Over a half pint of beer Meninsky would talk. He talked of the Renaissance draughtsmen and of Signorelli in particular. He made us aware of the beauties of Poussin and led us up to Cézanne who was to become our God.’
It was his father who, inadvertently, rescued him from clerking and set him on the path to success and fame. Auguste Ardizzone had risen high in the Eastern Extension Telegraph Co., and in 1926 he was awarded a number of bonuses. He gave Ted and his two sisters £500 apiece, intending that they should invest it. Instead, Ted chucked in the last of the clerking jobs – despite having achieved a place in his father’s company at last – declared his intention to become a full-time self-employed artist, and departed for Venice with his sister Betty.
The last few pages of The Young Ardizzone are a breathless epilogue – ‘by now I was married and good fortune smiled on me’ – but they tell us the secret of his appeal:
In bad times we were much helped by incurable optimism. We were young Micawbers. If cheques bounced, pictures did not sell nor illustrations come to hand we comforted ourselves with the thought that something was bound to turn up. My poor father considered this a foolishness and would finger his cheque-book, fearing a call upon his limited resources. The call never came; something always turned up. I wish he was alive today to know that his fears were groundless.
And indeed to read his son’s lovely book.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 28 © Huon Mallalieu 2010
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 12: Edward Ardizzone, The Young Ardizzone