On 6th May, 2007, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling unveiled an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the house in which Edward Ardizzone had lived and worked for over fifty years.

 

 
130 Elgin Avenue in the snow - Christmas Card c.1955

 

Lord Mayor, members of the Ardizzone family, friends:
The composer Gioachino Rossini used to tell a true story about the nephew of fellow composer Meyerbeer, who wrote a solemn march for his uncle's funeral. Rossini took one look at the score, just before the ceremony, and said “excellent - only it would have been much better if your uncle had written the march and you had died".

I mention this partly because of Edward Ardizzone's Italian connections on his father's side, but mainly for another reason. Although I'm delighted and honoured to have been chosen to speak, at this unveiling of a blue plaque on 130 Elgin Avenue, wouldn't Ted Ardizzone himself have had a field day with this scene. The backdrop of the avenue, and the large, tall late Victorian house about mid-way along it - already immortalised in several of his pictures and sketches and family Christmas cards. The even larger extended family - several of whom actually grew up in no. 130 - Christianna and the nephews and nieces and the cousins and all their children - who have come from far and wide, including the United States, to take part in this celebration. The different worlds represented here - the Lord Mayor of Westminster, English Heritage, the Maida Vale Society, newspapers and galleries and bookshops and publishers and admirers. Ted Ardizzone could have rearranged all this in the theatre of his mind into a gentle, good-humoured image of the sheer strangeness of the occasion - like a latter day Chaucer depicting pilgrims who have converged on Maida Vale on 3 May 2007, each with their own story to tell. He seems always to have been fascinated by people and their behaviour, their dreams and aspirations and follies - even in tragic circumstances - the human capacity for enjoyment, for not taking things too seriously. His citation when he was made a Royal Designer for Industry in 1974 put this well.

"His portrait of English life was an unruffled vision of town, beach and country populated by fubsy matrons, cooks like cottage loaves, dozy mongrels, pointy-feet children and men who in general seem to be off-duty. He was an unmalicious version of Thomas Rowlandson."

Christopher White, one of the artist's nephews who did indeed grow up here in no. 130, asked me to speak this morning - partly because of Ted Ardizzone's teaching at the Royal College of Art from 1953 to 1961, and partly because I suspect Christopher knows of my passion for illustrated books.

Where the RCA is concerned, Richard Guyatt was Professor of Graphic Arts - the School in which Ted taught illustration in the 1950s - and I phoned him on Sunday to ask if he had any reminiscences of that time. Dick will be 93 on Tuesday next, and sends his love. The three things he can remember are one: that Ted would arrive at the College in South Kensington across the way in a tiny little car that resembled an umbrella - a generously proportioned man in an ungenerously proportioned car; two: that he was a very amiable part-time tutor - much admired by the students - a teacher who had a strong belief in the importance of drawing, of taking a sketchbook wherever you went, and of returning to nature from time to time - to recharge batteries; and three: that the environment of the School - where art met commerce, printmaking met illustration, the serious met the humorous, and where all the applicants had to sit an entrance exam in painting even though most of them would specialise in illustration or graphics, this environment suited his temperament very well. Art in a design environment and design in an art environment.

Ted was and is best known for his book illustrations, and so his paintings and lithographs are still a neglected aspect of his work. In the year he started teaching at the College, he made a watercolour drawing of the RCA Senior Common Room, then in Cromwell Road - which shows a room full of elderly-looking gentlemen - all men - several in tweed suits, sitting in deep leather armchairs sleeping or reading the papers, writing letters or chatting in a languid way around the fireplace while an aged retainer totters in, carrying a precarious tray of wine glasses. It was probably drawn just after the event, which was his method, and it is very perceptive. A long time ago and a whole world away. The furniture designer Gordon Russell, when he was running the Council of Industrial Design at this time - soon to become the Design Council - Gordon Russell wrote that in times of trouble and moments of doubt, he would always be cheered up by the arrival through the post of the regular pink list, beautifully illustrated and composed by Edward Ardizzone, of wines just purchased for the Senior Common Room. I think we've all been cheered up at one time or another by Ardizzone vignettes. A few years later, it was said that an army officer once came into the new Common Room at Kensington Gore - thinking it was in fact the mess at Knightsbridge Barracks - and only realised his mistake when he came to pay for his lunch. Ted would have had a field day with that one as well. When teaching, he would apparently make visual adjustments to student drawings with trails of snuff.

And then there's the illustrations and drawings for books, over 165 books in
all, listed in Brian Alderson's original hand-list - from the first book In a Glass Darkly in 1929 to The Young Ardizzone, an autobiographical fragment in the early 1970s, and beyond - for 30 of which Ted was the author as well. I first encountered these - like many children of that era - at the age of six when I read Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, the large-format version first published in 1936, and the foundation of the 'Tim' series of ten more books and of his fame. I once asked dear Kathleen Hale, of Orlando the Marmalade Cat fame - the rival attraction - about the impact Little Tim had on the world of children's books. She replied that it revolutionised that world, and encouraged her and her publisher to risk producing her own large-format volumes with lithographs. Hence Orlando.

Nearly all of Ted's illustrations and drawings were created in this very house, where he lived with family from 1920 to 1972 - at first with the older Ardizzones, then with his sisters and their families. The big L- shaped first floor room overlooking the Avenue, which had once been the drawing-room - was to be called 'the studio'. Gabriel White describes it very well, in his Edward Ardizzone:

"There were french windows leading out onto a balcony, and in front of these Ardizzone placed a model's throne. Here he sat on a stool with a drawing board in front of him. The throne accumulated about it a wide variety of objects which at one time included a large stack of empty wine bottles so continuously was the artist at his desk and so frequent was the entertainment around him. From his perch he would survey life in the Avenue through the trees, gossipers and children at play constantly attracting his attention ... The Avenue was rarely without distraction."

This was the scene - of himself at work - which Ted drew in his 1950 sketchbook, reproduced on today's invitation.

Christianna takes up the story, in her memoir published by the Ashmolean Museum for Ted's centenary celebrations:

“My father drew all the time. He drew at his desk all day, seated on his dais in the studio window, intent upon his work while family life, which was mostly lived in that large room, went noisily on around him; and he drew in the evenings and even during meals on any scrap of paper which came to hand. Cigarette packets, shopping lists, the covers of Penguin books, the long calculations with which he amused himself on the rare occasions when he wasn't either drawing or reading, were all embellished with fantastical doodles and with little sketches, perhaps to clarify the answer to a question, or to expand upon something he was telling us. For him drawing was the most precise and eloquent means of communication."

From the window on the first floor, Ted Ardizzone would also observe the life and times of Maida Vale, an area which had developed mostly in the late 19th century, the period of this house, where genteel living went on side by side with seediness - with Elgin Avenue reflecting this dual quality – where there were some of London's most interesting pubs in an area dotted with artists' studios and music hall singers and tarts - where Sir John Tenniel, Punch cartoonist and illustrator of Alice in Wonderland had lived just down the road.

And it was from this same studio that Ted Ardizzone produced the wonderful drawings for Peacock Pie - a book of rhymes by Walter de la Mare in the year I was born, 1946. One of them was called The Window, and it shows a small child peeping through the corner of a curtain out of a large Victorian window:

Behind the blind I sit and watch
The people passing - passing by;
And not a single one can see
My tiny watching eye.

They cannot see my little room,
All yellowed with the shaded sun,
They do not even know I'm here
Nor'll guess when I am gone.

just right for today. I only met Ted Ardizzone once - at the launch of his Diary of a War Artist in 1974, in the Imperial War Museum where I was on the staff and helping to organise an evening where we all drank far too much sponsored vodka. One of my jobs was to make sure the author and illustrator met as many people as possible.

He had been an official war artist - in Italy, North Africa, France, and latterly in Germany - but his drawings were, as ever, delightfully unofficial as was his manner throughout a very long and demanding evening. I only met him once, but, through his legacy in the College - still in the ether in 1974 - through his drawings, paintings, prints and sketchbooks, and through his books for children, I felt I'd known him forever.

We can't turn the whole of this district of London into an Ardi-zone, much as we might like to, but we can do the next best thing which is to place a blue plaque on number 130 Elgin Avenue, then eat and drink and think of Ted – a pint of bitter for preference - at The Prince Alfred, a short walk away – a favourite pub he featured complete with dartboard in Back to the Local, a sort of sequel to The Local. We can raise our glasses to illustration - still an under-rated art - and we can then perhaps paraphrase William Shakespeare
whose work Ted illustrated in Hey, Nonny Yes - with drawings of some strange characters from this part of London - and in the 1951 Festival edition of the Comedies. It would go something like this:

"Give me your hands, if we be friends,
"For Edward shall restore amends".


Thank you.

Christopher Frayling
May 2007




Printed here with the kind permission of Professor Sir Christopher Frayling
© Christopher Frayling 2007

 

Return to top of page