Saturday, 11 August 2012

Through the Magic Mirror

Welcome to the magical world of Anthony Browne

I've just spent ten days with my family on holiday in the Cardiff area.

For the most part the weather was shocking - torrential rain and howling winds.

Willy the Wimp welcomes us
It did, however, make us explore the indoor attractions in the area. One of the best was an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff city centre - and it was absolutely free.

Through the Magic Mirror: The World of Anthony Browne is a restrospective of this most idiosyncratic of children's writer-illustrators and is a stunning way to spend a couple of hours.

As you climb the marble steps to the gallery, Browne's irresistible chimp Willy the Wimp greets you and shows you where to walk.

You are then greeted by a lifesize cut out of Anthony Browne gazing around a wall into a 'magic' mirror. And this is where you enter the magic world of Anthony Browne, the Children's Laureate 2009-11.

Anthony Browne peeps into the 'Magic Mirror'
Original artwork from his books are mingled with Browne-related artifacts, such as a cartoon he did as a child which won him first prize in a BBC television competition.

There is also the actual dressing gown worn by the father in My Dad. This book has long been a favourite at bedtime with both my son and daughter for the past decade.

Anthony Browne's dad's dressing gown... look familiar?
It turns out the distinctive brown, checked robe, with twirly piping belonged to Browne's own father, who died when Anthony was only 17. The author came across the gown years later going through a trunk of his dad's possessions and was transported back to his childhood on a wave of memory.

The exhibition is divided into sections reflecting themes and obsessions running through Anthony Browne's work, such as gorillas and apes, dark forests, family and surrealism.

Mmm... seem to be a lot of apes!
While I'm on the subject of surrealism, I've often thought there was a touch of Rene Magritte about Browne's work, so it was interesting to see this confirmed in Browne's commentary, which is woven through the entire exhibition.

Our two loved the show and were amazed at the artistry and craftsmanship of Browne's beautifully detailed illustrations, the intricate brushwork, something that gets lost in the final print version. Lovely, too, to see the splodges of 'white-out' Browne has applied in certain places to mask his mistakes, proving that this is an artist who does things the 'old-fashioned way'.

We were all fascinated by the little pencil story boards and 'dummy versions' of the books that Browne uses to test his story for the first time, making decisions on where illustrations will sit in relation to the well-chosen words.

These are the little touches that reveal the blood, sweat and tears that have been sacrificed to produce those sublime story books.

In his recent autobiography, Playing The Shape Game, Anthony Browne sounds a note of concern about the future of picture books, with computer games, television and e-books all posing a threat to their survival.

Let's hope enough young people who see this exhibition are inspired to create glorious, warm, funny and challenging picture books the 'Anthony Browne way' in the future.

* I can't recommend Through The Magic Mirror enough. It's been organised in association with the children's literature museum, Seven Stories. It's on until September 23. Entry, as I say, is free. The museum is open every day, except Monday, 10am-5pm. Check out more details on their website, here.

1 comment:

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