Young Johnny Medway is 15 months now, and is starting to express an interest in planes, tractors and trains. Whilst I approve of his choices so far, I have concerns that this is inevitably leading him into the greedy clutches of Thomas the Tank Engine and his mean, selfish and arrogant friends. It's not just the fact that the typical TTE phase can last more than 3 years and be very expensive (especially if he starts becoming a completist collector like his dad) - there's just something wrong about Thomas. My good pal Christian likens him to Robocop when he removes his mask to reveal his fleshy human face - strip away the metal bodywork and his grey sluglike torso helplessly rolls down the embankment where he lays shivering like ET in the stream.
So how do you avoid becoming the Fat Controller, censoring a childs interests? The solution presented itself a few months ago when I went to see my own work on display in the library of Manchester Metropolitan University. The exhibition presented MMU art graduates work spanning over 100 years of the art department, much of it drawn from their own collection and archive. Alongside Oliver East, Ghilchick (who went on to draw for Punch) and incredible textile and industrial/commercial design, was a small handful of original illustrations for The Little Red Engine books by Leslie Wood.
The books were familiar though I don't remember actually ever reading any of them, and Woods name was unfamiliar, so I was delighted to discover that not only was he Stockport-born and studied at Manchester, but the library's Special Collections department holds his archive.
So, I finally made time on Friday to have a look for myself. Ended up staying for over 3 hours, and only managed to view about a third of his material, and have a brief openmouthed browse around their MASSIVE children's book collection.
It seems much of the most recognisable work was sold at Bohnams back in 2005, and the remaining stack was kindly donated by Leslie's widow Elsie. There's still a respectable amount of Little Red Engine originals, all gouache (I think) and ink on board. Apologies for my poor quality photographs - I will return with a tripod and proper camera. All images are from the archive unless stated otherwise.
This one I pulled off the internet, as it appeals to my love of illustrated maps in kids books, which I think I've mentioned before.
There's work from other titles too-
-including roughs and originals from much later work, which demonstrates how he was able to move with the times (but unfortunately something of the early charm gets lost) -
Also in the archive - illustrations for magazines, notably Punch as well as Shell's inhouse publication Shellman and work for BP -
-and piles and pile of beautiful advertising work. This only skims the surface with a few choice examples -
I must find out if this sugar bowl was ever actually produced. There's a definite Eric Ravilious influence (he needs a separate post), much more subtle than his more energetic lollipop fun work, but still simple, clear and beautiful.
Why is there not a gorgeous monograph of Woods incredible output? I've not touched on his science fiction covers, nor fully explored MMU's treasure horde, but it's clear this amazing artist and designer's significant contribution shaped so many truly delightful images and publications.
I'll be back there as soon as I can, so this is by no means the last you'll hear of Wood or the brilliant Special Collections department.
Thanks to Jeremy for all his kind help in sharing this delightful resource.