V&A Prints and Drawing Study Room

I thought I’d share a tiny bit about the vacation I just took.  There was at least one day I want to share with you, especially if you’re an illustrator or a picture book lover.  Read on, if you’d like to know more.

My hubby and I saved up for years to be able to go on the trip we did.  We went on a whirlwind trip of the UK and saw a bit of Paris at the end.  It was such a wonderful experience in so many ways, but I want to talk about one very special day that may be of interest to you (and tell you how you can do it too, if the chance should ever arise).

Many years ago, I read on someone’s blog (I forget who) that you could go to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, request to see original illustrations, and potentially hold them in your own hands (if they had them on file).  I determined there and then that if I ever made it back to London, I would do just that!  When my hubby and I started planning this trip, I had to do a bit of research to figure it all out.

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IMG_5352First, it’s the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the V&A where you can do this.  They have thousands of things in their archives and individuals are only allowed to ask for 5 things.  BUT if you’re a group, you can request up to 10 things.  I searched through their online archives to figure out what I wanted to see most.  I searched for “illustration” and then by person.  I settled on several of my favorite illustrators (Beatrix Potter, E.H. Shepard, Quentin Blake, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and Kate Greenaway) , but choosing just one piece from each one was painful.  BUT then I realized my hubby and I together could be a group and I asked for 7 things when I emailed to make the appointment.  We were approved AND they threw in another piece to boot!

IMG_4326What I didn’t realize is that I wouldn’t be asking for PIECES.  While that was certainly what was on my request email (with itemized numbers, etc.), I didn’t realize those pieces were stored in giant BOXES.  And what would get pulled for me were BOXES of illustrations.  Thankfully my appointment was for ALL day on the date I’d scheduled.  I spent hours looking through hundreds of illustrations.  I share some of my treasured finds and observations with you here.

First, I started with E.H. Shepard.  Apparently he donated his sketch book of his work on WHEN WE WERE SIX.  This was a fascinating way to start my day.  He worked in very loose pencil sketches and they were very scribbly.  I was fascinated by his revisions, the mistakes he made, and other artistic choices.

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I find it fascinating to note what got erased (and what got kept), and what got repositioned (or reversed, per his notes).

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I love how he drew things multiple times to decide what he really liked best (or worked best) for an illustration.


I love how he puzzled through things, like with the well here.  A well with a roof isn’t as easy to fall into, now is it?

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I love how he scribbles to figure out the shape of things.  And circles it when he’s got it.


And don’t you just love the shape of this bear, climbing the stairs like a toddler?

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I love his ink work for first proofs and his sense of humor.  What a privilege to study his work!  But he wasn’t the only one.  There was also Quentin Blake.

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I love how he uses nothing but ink wash in these illustrations.  I love how he illustrates with such simplicity and even ABSENCE.  Those books on that shelf are shown with white light toward the bottom.  Brilliant!

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I love how he isn’t hung up on perfection when illustrating his people.  Those hands are terrible, aren’t they?  And yet they get the point across.  I love how he went outside of his tools (the ink wash) to create the effect he wanted (chalk writing is what? white colored pencil?).  He wasn’t afraid of experimenting.

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And there were hundreds of pictures in each box so I got to discover new-to-me illustrators (that I really must research to learn more about!).  Like this one by Charles B. Birch.  LOOK at that detail.  Egads!  Even the wood pattern on the door is hand drawn!  Oof!


I love this wood engraving by Richard Doyle.  You know exactly what he’s looking at, but yet it’s vague.  It doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed.  Again with what doesn’t have to be shown to give the idea of the illustration (and how it draws the eye to the important bits).


This was one of my favorite paintings by Edmund Dulac: The Entomologist’s Dream.  The hand painted detail on those butterflies really isn’t captured well in this photo.  And it was the actual painting (not a reproduction) I was holding.  Gorgeous!


But this painting stole my breath away.  The use of light and shadow.  The foreground and background (and that cleverly hidden mid-ground on the right).  The lightest lights and the darkest darks and how it made my eye move around it.  Amazing!

And a new illustrator I fell in love with: Cecil Aldin.  He had such differing styles.  He could do a cartoon-y approach (as he does here, in this funny poem that had me giggling):


or these gorgeous ink paintings that blew my mind.


I definitely need to research his work and learn more about him.

Finally, I ended my day with Beatrix Potter.  Her box had to be pulled from a special collection and I had to promise not to share too many of her sketches, etc.  They actually sold a couple of prints of her sketches in the museum gift shop (and I did buy at least one of them).  Each item in her box was kept within special protective covering that made it hard to photograph.  I had to ask for special permission to remove them (which I did on one I will share in just a minute).

Her pencil sketches gave me such delight.  To be able to see the genesis of such well known (and beloved) stories had me in awe.

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To see sketches for projects that never came to fruition (one of my favorite poems, The Owl and the Pussycat), had me again a bit misty-eyed.


But perhaps my favorite discovery were a couple of concept pieces she did.  I don’t know what they were originally supposed to be (cards?), but I figured out that they had flaps that lifted and asked for help so I could see beneath.  It was well worth the effort!  There were a couple of them, but I share my favorite here with you (as it had multiple flaps).

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I wish I could share all with you that I saw that day, but alas.  It would probably eat up all of your time and all of my picture storage.  I hope you enjoyed what I shared and I hope it inspires some of you as much as it did me.

4 thoughts on “V&A Prints and Drawing Study Room

  1. Oh, wow, Jena, this is WAY-FLIPPING COOL! Yes, it was worth your effort to get under those flaps. Thanks for sharing that!

    Charles B. Birch’s time-consuming details and Cecil Aldin’s lions are wonderful discoveries. The needleworker in me understands and loves patient, repetitive, time-consuming handwork.

    I look forward to a similar visit someday. I don’t think I’ll forget the blog that gave me the idea!

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