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24 Jul 15

Bunyips and Dragons: Australian Children’s Book Illustrations

Illustrated storybooks are often a child’s first encounter with works of art. Most of us vividly remember the picture books we read as children. The characters, images and stories sparked our curiosity and opened up new worlds.

Bunyips and Dragons: Australian Children’s Book Illustrations features eighty works made by some of Australia’s best-loved illustrators. The exhibition features original drawings made for award-winning books by artists such as Graeme Base, Ron Brooks, Alison Lester, Peter Pavey and Shaun Tan, as well as several unpublished works, and pictures commissioned for the Little Ark Children’s Calendar in the early 1990s.

The drawings were generously donated to the National of Victoria in 2014 by Albert Ullin OAM, who collected the works over his long career in the children’s book business and wished them to find a permanent home at the Gallery. A selection of his donation is displayed in Bunyips and Dragons. In 1960 Ullin opened the Little Bookroom in Melbourne’s Metropole Arcade, on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, the first Australian bookstore dedicated to children’s literature, which he managed for almost forty years. The shop became a well-known meeting place for young illustrators, including Ron Brooks and Peter Pavey. As Ullin established friendships with Brooks, Pavey and many others, he began to collect their drawings and built up an extensive collection through purchases and gifts. The first works he bought were two of Brooks’s drawings for The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek (1973), and two of Pavey’s illustrations for One Dragon’s Dream (1978). Over the course of its life, the Little Bookroom expanded and moved to different premises in Melbourne, and now continues to do business through two branches.

The majority of the works in Bunyips and Dragons are from the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which the book industry flourished and around half of all children’s titles published in Australia were illustrated books. Organisations such as the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), Books Illustrated and the Centre for Youth Literature have played a significant part in promoting children’s literature. The growing market encouraged multiple voices and perspectives, and the works in the exhibition reflect this diversity, including stories of Indigenous and multicultural Australia.

The exhibition is loosely arranged according to themes of Australian animals and environment, home, family, adventure and fantasy. In spite of their enormous diversity, nearly all of the original drawings have one thing in common: they are much bigger than their corresponding, final printed images in books. The illustrations are displayed here as stand-alone works, accompanied by filmed interviews with artists Ron Brooks, Leigh Hobbs, Alison Lester and Shaun Tan, which give insight into their very different working processes.

Tan, one of a younger generation of illustrators, creates dreamlike scenarios in his complex works. Even when his stories include specific references to Australian landscape and history – such as in The Rabbits (1995) – they operate as universal tales of conflict and dispossession. Arguably, the greatest stories are those that ring true either because they are generally applicable or because they manage to distil the essence of a quintessentially Australian experience, such as Bob Graham’s Greetings from Sandy Beach (1990) which tells the story of a family on a beach holiday that does not go according to plan.

The illustration styles and subjects addressed in the works are varied: some are detailed and highly finished, while others are loose and seemingly spontaneous. It takes great skill to make a drawing appear effortless, and much thought goes into the way in which images are fitted to a text, or how a text is inserted into the images. Sometimes the illustrator is also the author of a book; however, many books are collaborations between an author and illustrator. In these cases, an artist is given the task of interpreting a story and finding the right visual language to give faces to characters, atmosphere to places and a particular dynamic to the narrative.

Illustrators do not simply provide literal depictions of what a text describes. Rather, they create a world, sometimes telling additional stories with images that add another dimension to the text. The process is no different from any other creative endeavour; it requires skill and insight, and more often than not involves multiple attempts and trial-and-error experimentation.

Whether they are stories with a moral message, lighthearted tales or character-driven books such as the adventures of Leigh Hobbs’s character Old Tom, children’s books are not only for children. The most successful children’s literature engages adults as well as young readers, and remains relevant many years after a book has been published. Bunyips and Dragons includes numerous illustrations from classics of Australian children’s literature. The collection compiled by Albert Ullin does not claim to be a comprehensive overview of children’s books, but instead shows the diversity of images and stories that form part of our collective imagination.