Vintage iconography and vicarious memory: In which I suggest that time travel is child's play.
It was when?!
If you're anything like me, the nineties should be ten years ago and it is against the mighty prophecies that children born after the year 2000 aren't androids. Time seems exponentially experienced and the more days you encounter the shorter the years feel. As days pass, our memories become abridged and the retrieval cues for different chapters in our lives are reduced to which house we lived in, who we were friends with, the work we produced, or the music we heard when we did a particular thing. Styles and moods become the touchstones by which we bracket off our years, and memory is blended with invention as we retrospectively try and make sense of moments and feelings. Amidst this fog of pastness, there is a two-way dynamic happening between our perceptions of the past and our recognition of present conditions. For example, I have a memory of morning light in the garden from very early childhood and I can't know if it's a genuine memory or something I've made up in accordance with an image I've since been shown. But what does this mean for illustrators?
Quentin Blake and generational processing.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about vicarious memory and vicarious nostalgia, where we 'remember' and feel sentimental about a time or occasion we were not privy to. I feel very stirred when I hear recordings of Spitfires flying but that is a secondary experience of wartime that I've developed through the many vintage R.A.F movies I was exposed to as a little girl. Which brings me to my main point, that of generational processing. While watching a film that was indeed set during World War II, I noticed that the leading lady — a smart military woman with her beret cap, curled locks, red lips, gloved hands and sensible shoes — looked like one of Roald Dahl’s loved but feared witches ~ only because this happened to be my own frame of reference for that particular style.
It dawned on me, after approximately twenty years of looking at Quentin Blake’s illustrations, just how heavily 1940s fashion influences the adults he still draws (or was drawing in the 80s). While The Witches was published in 1983, the depicted women’s gloves, hats, handbags, wigs and full-fur coats are characteristically vintage. While the artist clearly has a vivid imagination, a diverse repertoire, and a spontaneous though practiced style, Blake’s characters often reflect the era in which he was a child, a time when the A-line silhouette, collared blouse and two-piece suit were indeed everyday wear for some women. The delay we witness between Blake’s lived-experiences of these fashions and his artistic renderings of it shows that it would be a mistake to pick up a copy of The Witches and deduce that it was published in the 1940s. The reality of not judging a book by its cover might then dawn in a new context. We might be moved into deeper ruminations of how the creative expression of lived experiences can have a late or protracted effect on the cultural aesthetics that follow it. I would suggest that this happens through what we might call 'generational processing'.
Antiquated iconography is going strong.
It is in this manner of generational processing that we hand historical knowledge and personal memories on to our children; and the glorious thing about this is that the temporal anomalies tend to be absorbed by young and curious minds as ‘just another version’ of the world they are getting to know. Children manage to recognise the function of rotary dial telephones and accept them as a standard for illustrated phones even though it’s unlikely they’ve actually encountered one, at least, not nearly as often as the smartphones they’ve almost definitely seen and handled in their parents’ care. Steam engines in storybooks, like Thomas the Tank Engine (above), often remain the probable form of a train in picture books while Cinderella’s prince, usually shown riding a horse in tights, seems like a feasible solution to the problem of transport when in love with a princess. From the parental side, on the other hand, it’s not uncommon to sense parents getting to the ‘down will come baby, cradle and all’ part of the Rockabye nursery rhyme with some hesitancy as the sweet baby shown in a bassinet hanging from a tree becomes at serious risk of neglect ~ ‘what sorcery is this!? What am I singing to my child!?’
On the whole, it’s not problematic to revel in these old books and, if anything, it’s a glorious luxury afforded to us by the availability and circulation of printed literature. There are exceptions of course. There are many stories (like Pocahontas) with antiquated words and imagery that underscore colonisation, patriarchy, and inexcusable cultural insensitivities, and they really ought not to be impressed on young minds. Needless to say, this is where we as parents and guardians must be critical and use discretion, but that is a discussion for another time. Here, I’m simply interested in how the vintage world informs contemporary visual culture so effortlessly by the hand and memory of illustrators, and how how the depicted-world then goes on to become a vicarious memory in the minds of the children observing it.
Illustrations as a safe space.
I have a real affinity with 1960s interpretations of old European worlds as spawned by the Ladybird Book illustrations of tales like Cinderella (above) Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding-hood and The Magic Porridge Pot. Similarly, you might vicariously 'remember' the Roman and Gaulish worlds of Asterix, the Middle-earth of Tolkien, the twentieth century Canada of Anne of Green Gables, or the Belgian world of Tintin. When I think of my own childhood in the 1980s, I recall the dream-world that accompanied my lived-experiences, like a dream-shelf sitting just above my reality or a cloud of wishes that floated around my head. So while I might have been hoping to receive a funky printed t-shirt, flouro sunglasses, or a Walkman from Santa, I was ultimately dreaming of carrying a basket in the forest while wearing flouncy dresses, smocks and bonnets while looking for an old brick house with a hot cauldron and a few pixies about the place.
It also makes me ponder the books I’ve kept from the '80s and '90s for my own children. The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate (Joy Cowley, 1984), A Dark Dark Tale (Ruth Brown, 1981) and a variety of Little Golden Books, Ladybird Books, and children’s treasuries. Many of them present the world in the 1950s if not the seventeenth century. Of course there are endless contemporary picture books on the shelf too, and when we read this magnificent legacy of historical literature we don't present it as a history lesson, though in many ways it is. We are enriching our children’s minds with the cultures that inform their own. We can and must be critical of it at times but the wonderful space created by children’s authors and illustrators is crafted to be emotionally safe, and is buffered by magical deeds, talking animals, and fairies ~ to the degree that you can relay your parental direction via avatars and fictional settings.
What this means for you.
I tend to follow this line of historical evocation in the images I make for children too, though I can’t claim it is at all didactic or even entirely conscious while I’m working. Like the Quentin Blake example we began with, some of it is just my frame of reference from childhood. In any case, I want to turn your attention to the generational processing that emerges within your world and, if you are in their company, the temporal play of your children also. It can be fascinating to consider the degree to which the aesthetics you enjoy, or escape within, are drawn from the imagery (across books, toys, movies, computer games, music videos etc.) that you were exposed to as a child. It is even more fascinating to think that, not only are you creating those 'worlds' for the young people in your life today, but that half of the time you personally spent playing and dreaming as a child, was a dalliance on the fringes of time-travel.