My Favourite Childhood Book: ‘Classic Fairytales’ by Helen Cresswell, illustrated by Carol Lawson (1994)

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‘Little Red Riding Hood’

OK, time for a trip down memory lane! As the title of this blog might suggest, I have always loved fairytales, even as a child. Some of my regular readers may already know that my favourite book OF ALL TIME is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’m completely and utterly in love with this story, and pretty much obsessed with all memorabilia. I also adore tales such as ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon,’ with ethereal, slightly eerie illustrations by Danish artist, Kay Nielsen. (A guy, by the way, in case you’re wondering. :D)

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‘Pop! Out flew the moon’ by Kay Nielsen, from ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ (1914)

 

But when I was very, very little, one of the books that most stayed with me was a copy of ‘Classic Fairy Tales’ by Helen Cresswell, resplendent with gorgeous, vivid illustrations by the artist Carol Lawson. I think my mum may have bought it for me at the time because I looked so much like Lawson’s version of Little Red Riding Hood on the cover- pudgy red cheeks, bobbed ‘Madeline’-like red hair, with the same blunt fringe and blue eyes. (Probably not as cute.)

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‘The Frog Prince’

The eight tales in the book include ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ (one of my personal favourites) ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (favourite bedtime story!) and ‘Goldilocks.’ Cresswell’s writing is nuanced, imaginative and crisp, as well as being highly enjoyable. The stock fairytales of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood turn humorous, poetic and inventive under her skilled touch. But what most resonated with me were Lawson’s amazing illustrations- in my opinion, a memorable blend  of fine art in the American tradition, and nods to the British romantic Pre-Raphaelite tradition.

‘Snow White and Rose Red’

For instance, Lawson’s rosy-cheeked, robustly healthy, twinkle-eyed children- Little Red Riding Hood, Rose Red, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks- could easily fall into place in a Norman Rockwell advertisement. Goldilocks even stands surrounded by New England style blue and white crockery, her dress and pinafore unlike the long, flowing gowns of doomed damozels, or the lacy frocks of Victorian upper-class children often found in Pre-Raphaelite work.

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‘Goldilocks’

And yet the languorous pose of Lawson’s sylph-like Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by a frame of full-bloomed roses, brings to mind Pre-Raphaelite master Edward Burne-Jones’s own Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by her very own roses, and a clutch of ethereal hand maidens.

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‘Sleeping Beauty’

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‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by Edward Burne-Jones (c.1890, from his ‘Briar Rose’ series.)

Although Lawson’s Rapunzel is undoubtedly an innocent, trapped in her tower, so vividly painted you can almost see her tremble, feel her bite her lip, the coils of her burnished hair are eerily similar to the snake-like hair of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Lady Lilith.’Image result for little red riding hood carol lawson

‘Rapunzel’

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‘Lady Lilith’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Oil on Canvas

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‘The Blue Bower’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) oil on canvas

Indeed, the criss-cross detail on Snow White’s folk-style bodice and dress is reminiscent of the medieval-type costumes the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood chose for their models/muses. The result is a dreamy, heady mix that perfectly captures the whimsical nature of each fairytale, without the sharp aftertaste of the bloody, bitter Brothers’ Grimm tales, or the dark undertone of Charles Perrault’s work. They lack the langurous, provocative sexuality of Rossetti’s masterpieces, but arguably include a hint of their symbolic detail. However, where the symbolism of a Rossetti or Millais painting equated long, coiling hair with sexuality (‘Lady Lilith’, and ‘The Blue Bower’, or poppies with premature death (‘Ophelia’, by John Everett Millais) here, in this children’s collection, the symbolism points to more wholesome things: a happy bear family (‘Goldilocks,) food in abundance and comfort (‘Snow White’ in the dwarves’ kitchen) and the arts (‘Sleeping Beauty’ has a lute at her side.)We are comforted, looking at these illustrations, and intrigued, but not shocked or chilled.

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‘Snow White’ (apologies for the blurriness of the image!)

Even Snow White, poised with a lusciously-red apple in her hand, looks at the very peak of health. Far from starving, Hansel and Gretel look well fed, even as they approach the witch’s gingerbread cottage. I’d like to think that children reading this book would be able to indulge in their imagination, all the while soothed that no real harm comes to these characters.

‘Hansel and Gretel’

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‘Cinderella’

This is no Angela Carter tale, but as this book is (originally, at least) intended for children, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Besides, the eye is constantly drawn to all sorts of charming little details- the bowl that Goldilocks clutches in a chubby hand, the soft-eared rabbit sitting next to Snow White and Rose Red, the night sky visible from Rapunzel’s tower window, the doves on her windowsill. The detail is so striking, each picture so filled with little clues and characters, that at times it almost resembles a medieval illuminated manuscript. There is much for both children and adults to enjoy here, and if you’re intrigued, copies are are still available on Amazon.

-All images are by Carol Lawson unless otherwise credited. All images from Tumblr, Pinterest and Google.

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