London: House of Illustration

house of illustrationI wanted to blog about Open House London this week while it was still a relatively recent occurrence, but that post needs more editing than I’m in the mood to do today (I’ve been getting a lot of eye strain lately, might be time to get my eyes checked!) so it’ll have to wait for another week or two.  Instead, here’s one on the House of Illustration that I wrote a while ago (as you can probably tell, given that all the exhibits I talk about ended weeks ago). The House of Illustration is a fairly new museum (opened in 2014), and as far as I can tell, not terribly well publicised (the first I’d heard of it was when I was looking through the National Art Fund pass holders book for stuff to do around London).  It’s part of the whole King’s Cross regeneration deal (I don’t think I’d ever been in Granary Square before the regeneration, probably due to the reason why it needed to be “regenerated” in the first place, but it does seem pretty nice now), and was founded in part by Quentin Blake (illustrator extraordinaire, most memorably for many of Roald Dahl’s books).

Admission is normally £7; we only went because the National Art Pass got us half-price entry (and we hadn’t used the membership in a while, what with going to New Zealand and all). The House of Illustration did sort of seem like a work still-in-progress, as the Quentin Blake gallery had only just opened a few months ago, so they might be planning to add more to it, but as it stands now, there are two main galleries, with an extra little exhibition room off one of the galleries (the admission fee includes both galleries, which is not how it looks on their rather confusing website).  Oh, and they don’t allow photographs, so you’ll just have to use your imagination, which is frankly a bit crap when we’re talking about a “house of illustration” (that’s why I’ve inserted links to the illustrations I could find online. I know it’s a bit of a pain to click them, but I wasn’t sure of their copyright statuses, so I didn’t want to just copy them into the post).

I got the impression that all the exhibits here are temporary exhibits, but the main (largest) one on at the time of our visit (some months ago now, sorry, I was trying to finish up with Australia first) was “A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia” which was on until September 11.  I was intrigued by this, because as you all know, I quite like Soviet art.  Basically, when Russia first became the Soviet Union, there was a brief flourishing of creativity in the world of children’s books.  Fairy tales were out, but animals were still acceptable, as were stories about everyday Soviet life, and some wonderful things were produced, including, for the first time in Russia, many Jewish children’s books, some illustrated by big name modernist artists like Marc Chagall, and a Soviet version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  However, this period only lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, when Stalin cracked down on creativity; from then on, books could only be about boring state-approved topics, like methods of production, Soviet workers, and the might of the Soviet empire.  Snooze central.

However, I really loved some of the books from the heyday of Soviet art; there were lots of farm animals (I really like chickens, I don’t know why.  Actually, scratch that: I think it’s because of the Feather Town books I owned as a child.  I loved Fran and Emma!) and for some reason, elephants, and even a story about a family of fleas, including a grandma flea clad in a babushka, which was kind of adorable.  They had a few English translation copies of picture books set out at the end of the exhibit that you could look through, and I especially took to Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s Ice Cream, which appeared to use a “fat man” eating ice cream as a stand-in for capitalist pigs; he ate all the ice cream that an ice cream cart was selling, so no one else could have any, but at the end, he began turning blue from eating so much ice cream, and eventually exploded, a la Mr. Creosote, only instead of spewing out partially masticated food over disgusted restaurant patrons, he magically turned into snow that covered the streets, much to the delight of children (personally, I would think they’d be pissed, as not only would they not get any ice cream, they now had to have snow during Russia’s brief summer, but it was still a great, and charmingly illustrated story).

The other main gallery is the Quentin Blake wing, which, true to its name, is all about Quentin Blake.  When we visited, it housed both “7 Kinds of Magic,” which included drawings from 7 children’s books about magic that Blake has illustrated (including The Witches, delightful!), and, in the larger room, “The BFG in Pictures,” which included some never-before-seen BFG art (I assume this is in response to that absolutely dreadful looking new movie.  Please stop ruining my favourite children’s books by making horrible movies out of them!).  I absolutely love Quentin Blake’s drawings, and in particular the BFG, who reminds me very much of my grandpa (must be the big ears…I tear up every time I read The BFG), though I suppose that wouldn’t have been the case if they’d gone with the original cruder illustrations, where the BFG wasn’t quite as gaunt and wrinkly.  But yes, I loved seeing new and different illustrations that didn’t make it into the books, and it was also a delight to look at the colour version of pictures that did (the scene where the BFG dines at Buckingham Palace is one of my favourites!).  I mean, I can’t complain about a bunch of Quentin Blake art.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining about the museum as a whole!  I think £7 is extremely steep for the size of this museum, and was very glad we only paid half price.  Just thinking of all the museums you can see for free in London, it seems ridiculous to have to pay that much for something this small and rather out of the way of the rest of London’s tourist destinations, so I’d be interested to see how many visitors this museum gets.  I also wasn’t super keen about the no photography rule (maybe for copyright reasons, because otherwise it didn’t make sense?), and the fact that you had to keep your ticket handy (which was just a receipt) because the set-up of the museum means that galleries are through separate doors, both off the gift shop, and someone checks your ticket inside each of them (there must be a better way of doing things that doesn’t require every visitor to frantically dig round their pockets when entering).  That said, the gift shop had a rather excellent little collection of postcards and greeting cards that I probably spent too long looking at, and I did really enjoy the exhibits that the museum had, I just think there wasn’t quite enough of them to justify the admission fee.  So I’ll give it 3/5; most enjoyable content, particularly for Quentin Blake fans, but downgraded for price, size of museum, and rather odd layout.


  1. I love it all – especially the Soviet illustrations and that cool, smoking rooster in particular. I’d love to know what that was all about.
    On a separate note: I hope your eye strain eases. I’m starting to get some of that myself – especially when reading old newsprint – and I find I have to take a lot of breaks. It’s really annoying.

    1. I bought a postcard of that very rooster, so I can tell you it’s from a book called Cockerel by Natan Vengrov, but since I can’t read Cyrillic script, I have absolutely no idea why he is smoking. I’m sure there’s a wonderful story behind it!
      And thanks! Eye strain has been plaguing me for the past couple of months in particular, I dunno why. I had a particularly bad bout on Tuesday from transcribing old censuses all afternoon for the project I volunteer on, so I didn’t want to risk bringing it back again by overexerting my eyes on Wednesday. Historical research is a killer!

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