Monday, August 16, 2010

Erik Blegvad

Last December, I included in a posting titled 'Favorites in Pen and Ink,' a short piece about one of my favorite children's book illustrators, Erik Blegvad. While many of his earlier books are out of print, with a little searching they can be found. Over the last month, I was lucky enough to find two of his books, one at a used bookstore and the other online. While at a Half-Price Books in Indianapolis, I came across a copy of a book titled "Beginning-to-Read Poetry." As the title suggests, this book from 1967 is a collection of short poems ideally suited for children who are just learning to read. The poems were compiled by Sally Clithero and the wonderful illustrations are by Erik Blegvad (there are used copies of this book available on Amazon for as low as $1.50, I paid twice that and it was worth every penny).

In my original posting on Blegvad, I talked about his pen and ink illustrations, which are what I've always associated him with, but he also did illustrations using watercolor, sometimes in combination with his pen work. In this book the illustrations are strictly watercolor, no pen at all. They are bright and cheerful and each one of them is delightful.

In this poem, titled "Jump or Jiggle," not only do I love the way he has framed the poem with his illustration, but I love how he managed to include in his image, every one of the animals that is mentioned in the poem, even the tiny little worm!

For a poem about a park in the snow after dark, Blegvad has created an enchanting landscape where he invites us to follow the two figures who have just entered the park through the open gate. The buttery yellow moon gives this chilly scene of winter a wonderful warm atmosphere.  Notice the little black cat off to the right of the image. I've noticed that Blegvad often includes this little cat in his drawings and as a viewer, it's fun trying to spot him.

The subtle coloration of the pond in this cute illustration adds to the feeling that light is reflecting off of the water's surface and I love how he has placed the little turtle in the foreground with the boy who is observing him kneeling on the other side of the pond.
Out of all of the poems in this book, this one by Robert Louis Stevenson, titled "Bed in Summer," is the only one I could recall reading before. Here, Blegvad has created a cozy bedroom scene, lit by a setting sun. We don't see the sun, but we see how its fading light streams through the window, casting a golden glow over the room.

The other Erik Blegvad illustrated book that I found recently was one that I purchased online from an Etsy vendor. It is a book published in 1971 that I had never heard of, "The Finches' Fabulous Furnace," by Roger W. Drury (there are multiple copies of this book available through Amazon for only $2.00, you can use the link in the book's title to take you there). The story is a bit on the preposterous side - a family finds that the only vacant house available for rent in the New England town where they have moved because of the father's new job, has a volcanic vent in its basement. But the author has such an engaging writing style, that I was soon able to suspend my disbelief and I found myself thoroughly enjoying this quirky and even sometimes suspenseful little book.

What really helped in bringing this book to life were the wonderful pen and ink illustrations by Erik Blegvad. There are more than two dozen illustrations in this short (150 page) book, everyone of them a gem. Each chapter heading has its own illustration and there are other illustrations sprinkled throughout. With his expert use of lights and darks, Blegvad excels at illustrating night time scenes, like this wonderfully atmospheric picture of a car driving down a night time street in the snow (see above).

This dramatic image of the house at No. 7 Pride Street, that the Finch family moves into, is another beautiful example of Blegvad's use of cross-hatching to convey a sense of atmosphere. I love how he shows the light striking the backside of the man's coat. In this image, Blegvad really manages to keep the viewer's eye moving - your eye is led from the man and his shadow over to the path leading to the house, up to the porch, to the roof-top tower, then over to the tree and then back to the man.

Blegvad also excelled in depicting children.  He was especially good at showing their body language. In this schoolyard scene, with very simple line work, he has created a series of poses that are very naturalistic. Even the way he has grouped the children and adults has been very well thought out. I love the shoe that is caught in mid-air hovering over the figures of the two boys wrestling on the ground.

Blegvad is a master when it comes to creating interesting compositions and lighting effects. Even in this scene, where we are shown a view of the volcanic furnace and where none of the main characters are present (unless you count the volcano, which is sort of a threatening character throughout the story), he has created an interesting and dramatic vignette. Notice the simplicity of how he created the hanging lightbulb and its shade. There is just a simple upside down crescent-shaped line to indicate the edge of the light bulb. He has used the white of the paper to give the effect of a bright light shining from the bulb.

With careful cross-hatching, he has done something similar in this scene inside the Finches' house. Here, Peter Finch is collecting materials to construct a volcano alarm, while his mother, who is unaware of the menace lurking in their cellar, does housework, and little sister Patsy wonders what's going on. The lighting here is somewhat subtler than in the previous image of the furnace, but you still get the sense that the lamp hanging from the ceiling is turned on. Blegvad has achieved this through his masterful cross-hatching. Notice how he even indicates the light that the lamp casts in a circle on the ceiling.

Besides his mastery at composition and lighting effects, Blegvad also had a knack for drawing different character types as can be seen in this example. Here, three of the town's selectmen, Mr. Blurt, Mr. Mound and Mr. Mumble have come to the Finch home to inquire about the rumors circulating that the Finches have an oil well in their basement. In the story, the heat rising from the volcano, that has been funneled by Mr. Finch through their chimney, causes a constant updraft around the house. Anyone approaching the house notices a strong wind blowing toward the house. Blegvad has illustrated this effect through these three characters. In the picture you'll notice the pant legs of the three men are riding up their legs, their coat tails are blowing upward and all three of them are holding on to their hats.

The book has so many delightful illustrations that it was difficult for me to choose which ones to post, but this simple horizontal image that is used in the middle of a page is one of my favorites. I love the simple character profile on the right contrasted with the shadowy image of the two Finch children sitting on the left. I love seeing panoramic images, maybe because they remind me of early wide-screen movies and when they're done right the whole frame will be put to use. In this case we see just a portion of the windshield and steering wheel of Mr. Pringle's convertible, but because of the placement in the image, it's easy to imagine the bottom edge of the illustration as the top edge of the car. The bottom edge of the illustration is very straight which suggests the body of the automobile, while the upper half of the illustration is irregular showing the landscape outside of the car. The way the image is composed, it's almost like the viewer is riding alongside of Mr. Pringle.

Besides his amazing pen and ink cross-hatching, his naturalistic poses, his use of lights and darks, Blegvad also created beautiful landscapes and architectural scenes. In this first image, which appears as the heading for Chapter 14, we see the town of Ashfield, clogged with traffic caused by people coming to celebrate the town's Bicentennial. It's another good example of a highly detailed illustration that will keep your eye on the move, searching out every corner. I love the slightly aerial perspective where we can see over the roofs of the houses back to a pasture where horses gallop on a hillside.

In this second image, the town wakes up one morning to see what at first seems to have been a snowfall, but which they soon find out is a dusting of ash from the awakening volcano. The thing that I find so impressive about this drawing is the way that the artist has used the negative space of the paper to indicate the ash that covers the rooftops of the houses, the cars and the tree branches. Because it's white, snow (and in this case, ash) can be difficult to depict in a black and white drawing, but Blegvad has managed to do it beautifully. Notice once again, the little black cat that is coming into the scene from the right side of the image.

In closing, I'll post one final Blegvad illustration. This one is from the end of the book where young Patsy Finch is to be given a medal for warning the town of the volcano's imminent eruption. This is another great illustration to search for details. One great detail takes place in the center of the image, just above the chapter number - A dog is straining on his leash to get at another little dog. This incident is not mentioned in the text, but like any good illustrator, Blegvad has used his illustration to add depth to the scene by presenting us with some extra details.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this look at two books charmingly illustrated by Erik Blegvad. If you love children's book illustrations and you're not familiar with his work, I highly recommend you seek him out. I think you'll be happy you did.

Below is an image sent to me by a reader. It is a print of an Erik Blegvad pub scene. The print is dated 1955 and was given to the reader by her father.  The reader would like to know more about the image. If anyone know anything about the origin of this scene, please post it here.  Thanks!


  1. I have an illustration of Eric Blegvad dated 1955 of a bar scene and there are two cats in the picture. I got this illustration from my father and have loved it my whole life. Would you be able to let me know anything about what I have it would be appreciated.

  2. Hi Marcia, I've never seen that particular image. Is it taken out of a book or is it an original?

  3. I'm not sure where it is from but I was able to keep it after my Dad passed away. What is something like that worth? My Dad would call it the bathroom picture because it was in a pub and everyone was watching you. I wish I knew more about it.

  4. Post it if you want to. I would like to learn more about it.

  5. I believe my father bought this print in a shop in Manhattan in the fifties. Other than that I know nothing about it. I do find that it is interesting since it is a bar scene and not from a children's book. Two cats in the picture make it even more special. If anyone knows more about his picture, I would appreciate any input.