Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rochester, Kent, etc

The going down of the sun: Illustrations of the month

I have to say I was only vaguely aware of the illustrator John Mansbridge before I found a secondhand copy of one of the children’s books he illustrated for the publisher Batsford. It was Castles, part of Batsford’s Junior Heritage series, with illustrations by Mansbridge and text by R. Allen Brown. The volume was one of a short series and I’ve since acquired others on Abbeys and Churches. The pictures are lively and colourful, and mix imaginative reconstruction with more academic elements such as floor plans and cross-sections in a way I still find engaging. It struck me, as a looked through them, that if I’d been given such books as a child I’d have latched on to the joys of architecture even sooner than I did.

John Mansbridge (1901–81) was born in London. His parents were Albert Mansbridge and his wife Frances (née Pringle), founders of the Workers’ Educational Association, the starting funds of which were famously 2s 6d from Frances’s housekeeping money. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and the Slade, established himself as a portrait painter (he painted the first Labour cabinet of 1924), produced posters for London Transport, and became a member of staff at Goldsmith’s College of Art in 1929. During World War II he was an official war artist, working on camouflage as well as producing portraits of those serving in the RAF. After the war he continued to paint and work at Goldsmith’s, where he became head of Fine Art, as well as producing many book illustrations. He had more than a passing interest in architecture, teaching the subject for the WEA and, after some ten years of research, producing a successful Graphic History of Architecture.

Many of the illustrations in the Castles volume combine several elements including realistic drawings of castles, floor plans, architectural details, additional contextual motifs such as pieces of heraldry, and textual material, often integrated into the architecture. So in this example of a group of great towers, the labels wind their way around interlaced arches, and the larger coloured lettering at the bottom is superimposed on the square and compasses, the symbolic tools of the mason. The castles are not shown in great detail, but Mansbridge’s combination of grey shading and pale coloured wash gives a sense of their mass and overall form – which in turn shows the variety of ways in which castle-builders designed keeps. He manages to cram a lot of information into a single, coherent page. The strong directional lighting, throwing into relief Gothic arches and ruined walls, gives an added sense of drama.
But it can all get much more exciting than this, as in my second example, a double-page spread depiction of siege warfare in full swing. Men at arms, their shields on their backs so that they look like beetles, swarm up a siege tower, catapults and similar engines are at work, and the air is thick with crossbow bolts. Fire has already taken hold in the background. And the more you look, the more seems to be going on – missiles flying through the air, defending swordsmen being felled, attackers getting pushed off their scaling ladders as they attempt to take the gatehouse, other attackers straining to operate the machinery of the catapult. The sun is going down on the horizon, but they’re not going to stop now.

This action-packed illustration is achieved using black and just one other colour – an economy imposed, no doubt, by the publisher's budget, but a challenge to which Mansbridge responded with apparent enthusiasm. He manages to tell us quite a bit about siege warfare, but does not flinch from the horror and sheer frantic confusion of battle either. Another and more profound lesson, perhaps, for the book’s original young readers.

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Please click on the illustrations to enlarge them

More of the illustrations from Castles are online here.

1 comment:

bazza said...

I too would have loved to see this kind of book as a young child. I enjoyed the Ladybird series, especially when they were historical, technical or scientific. Also the cut-away illustrations of The Eagle comic. Thanks for posting these superb illustrations!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’