The Tower, the beach, and the park: Illustrations of the Month
The phone rings. It is the Resident Wise Woman, calling me from a charity shop to ask about a book she has spotted. The line is terrible and our call is cut short, and cut short again when she calls back, but she wants to know if we have Looking Round London by Helen Carstairs. We do not. A while later she returns, clutching the most delightful children’s book I’ve seen in a long time, and one, what’s more, that I didn’t know existed. I am more and more fascinated as I turn the pages.
Looking Round London bears no date of publication, but internal evidence suggests that it came out in around 1938. It contains 22 full-page illustrations depicting the ‘sights’ of London – the great churches, the royal parks, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden market, and so on. Most of them are brightly coloured and packed with human activity – people feeding the birds, sailing in Regent’s Park, riding in Hyde Park, porters at Covent Garden and Billingsgate. There’s a lovely, free colourful line that sometimes seems to have a touch of Lowry, sometimes even of Matisse. And there’s a bit of whimsy, too, not overdone but very much there, in the form of fish-shaped clouds above Billingsgate and lines like radio waves above Broadcasting House.
My favourites among the illustrations include a lively zoo, a very red St James’s Palace, and St James’s Park, starring plants and pelicans. And the one above showing the Tower of London with children playing on the sandy beach that there used to be by the river. The figures, the colourful trees, the wavy lines in the sky and on the river are all aspects of it that catch my eye. But most of all I’m affected by what’s behind this sunny illustration – that it catches a London that, already, as the presses were rolling, had the clouds of a gathering storm approaching it, and that, in a few years more, would be blitzed.
There’s another way in which this book seems distant from us. We know (or I know, at any rate) virtually nothing about its author-illustrator. Who was Helen Carstairs? Reference books and the internet tell us very little: that she was around in c 1938 and published this book. No other books seem to be credited to her. Yet she was on to something with her winning illustrations. Did she give up and do something else? Did she survive the war? Does anyone know more?
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Postscript An extended version of this post appeared recently on the culture website The Dabbler. This has elicited a comment from James Leslie Carstairs, the grandson of Helen Carstairs, who confirms that Looking Round London was her only published book and fills in some more details about her life. One striking thing that emerges from this account is how much time this stylish artist of London spent overseas (in Australia, Buenos Aires, and Paris). 'Only the wanderer knows England's graces.'