A Fountain of Youth | St James's London

Art & Theatre

A Fountain of Youth

Illustration Cupboard is a fairytale oasis of childrens book art, but it delights serious grown-ups too

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It is impossible to take a wander around Bury Street's tranquil Illustration Cupboard gallery without being struck by constant little bursts of nostalgia. The walls are lined with such familiar - if fantastical faces; the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are; the bunnies from Guess How Much I Love You; Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. These are joined by a whole host of other original sketches too, drawn by the artists behind some of the most prolific children's book imagery of the last century.

Founder John Huddy's vision happened quite by accident, as most things in life, he tells us, when we drop in for a chat. His mother was a well-known writer and publisher who worked alongside artists like Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne and Quentin Blake. So I grew up knowing a lot of these writers and artists personally, says John, they used to come round to ours for tea.

Having studied History of Art at St. Andrews, then worked for a time at renowned St James's auction house Christies, John initially fancied himself as an artist. I told my mother I wanted to be a painter, and was met with absolute silence; which wasn't a good thing, he remembers. She suggested I sell art instead, and here we are.

John has most certainly flourished in a niche market, establishing one of the first companies to really develop the angle of appreciating and trading in contemporary book illustration.

Spread across three floors, the Illustration Cupboard now represents many of todays most distinguished contemporary illustrators; you'll spot works by artists from London to Berlin, Mumbai to Queensland. The gallery
has constantly rotating exhibitions, themed events and a much-loved annual winter exhibition.

On the afternoon of our visit, John has just returned from lunch with the legendary 95-year-old Judith Kerr; writer and illustrator of enduring classics The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series. We are working at the top level of this industry, he says, so I am constantly meeting fascinating people from all over the world. They are all such genuinely creative people nothing they do is ever derivative and they are all highly intelligent. They effectively make something that is very difficult to do look very easy. That is a real talent.

For John, it is the diversity of the illustration world that makes his work so rewarding. A lot of art collecting is very specialised, he says but this field is so diverse and accessible, it cuts across the whole range of society. We'll get very serious art collectors popping in to the gallery one minute, shortly followed by a family who have made a day trip to London just to come and have a look around.