“Sunlight on the Water:” Arthur Ransome’s Book Illustrations

Indrajit Bose

Abstract: Arthur Ransome, appearing towards the closing phase of the ‘golden age’ of children’s illustrated books, gave us, in his Swallows and Amazons series for children, a complete and artistically rendered world through his illustrations. Ransome illustrated his own stories, drawing both full-page illustrations of people and places, and miniature sketches of the natural world and objects as chapter terminations.  Though not a professional illustrator, Ransome was able to give his readers a full picture of the English natural world which has proved to have had an enduring legacy in children’s fiction.

                    It would be perhaps a truism to say that illustrations are an integral part of our reading experience of children’s literature. Well illustrated books kindle that imaginative spark in children that the authors are trying to foster through their writing. From Beatrix Potter’s pictures of a rural English Eden with animals leading a cozy country life, to the riverside pictures of Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows, to the sketches of Pooh and Piglet bivouacking in the Hundred Acre Wood, generations of child readers have grown up adoring and fantasizing over these pastoral idylls of matchless beauty.  And the images have endured over time; many adults remember with affection the beautiful illustrations of E. H. Shephard in Pooh or Potter herself. The turn of the century was not only rich in the literature for children it produced, but it was also the veritable golden age of illustrated children’s books. It was the conjoint efforts of the authors and illustrators that together recreated a potent paradigm of the visible world in a fictional fantasy universe.
        Especially potent and enduring were the pictures of an English countryside and country life which continued to be the defining image of Englishness in children’s imagination all over the world. These pictures really represent an idealization of rural England that was to persist particularly in the genre of the adventure story long after much of England had changed indescribably after the Second World War. In the long series of Swallows and Amazons books (1930—47) by Arthur Ransome, of course, this image of England and Englishness is especially predominant. What is even more to Ransome’s credit is that the books are drawn and illustrated by Ransome himself—no mean feat if we consider the fact that the series covers twelve books. Ransome not only gave us gripping tales of juvenile adventure figuring children with whom we can identify, but also immortalized the landscape of the Lake District and the Norfolk broads through the descriptions and sketches in his stories. It is to these drawings and sketches that we must turn to appraise his contribution to the genre of the illustrated children’s adventure story.

          Speaking historically, of course, Ransome and his illustrations antedate what is referred to as the ‘golden age of children’s book illustrations’, including the work of illustrators like John Tenniel and Kate Greenway, Ernest Shephard, Arthur Rackham, Jessie Wilcox-Smith, Edmund Dulac, Arthur Robinson and others. This period, extending roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s, saw the unprecedented growth and development of illustrations in children’s books. There were beautiful illustrations, both colour and black-and-white sketches, executed with artistic finesse, of people, objects, places and settings. There were woodcuts, engravings and chromolithographs. This period also coincided with a simultaneous development in printing technology. Though the human figures were beautifully executed, they often had esoteric qualities, as the illustrators often drew for books of fairy tales and legends, like the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as for more realistic subjects like the novels of the Bronte sisters. There were also elements of the fin de siècle, with wavy, billowing hair, fantastical cloudscapes and colourful arabesques. Often, there were animals with humanized traits, or allegorical personages. The tradition of the adventure story—often describing the exploits of a group of children—was, by contrast, far more realistic. It is to this tradition that Arthur Ransome belongs.
                   Ransome was not a professional artist and illustrator, he was a journalist, and correspondent of the Daily News during the Revolution in Russia, and later foreign correspondent of the Guardian. His drawings are realistic, and recreate the scenes and locales of the Walker children’s holiday adventures in the Swallows and Amazons series. He draws mainly for his locales on the beautiful natural landscape of the Lake District and the marshes and river of the Norfolk Broads. Both during his stint as war correspondent in Europe, when he successfully built and sailed a cruising yacht, Racundra, in the Baltic Sea, and during his later life as an author and journalist in England, when he owned a succession of sailing yachts, Ransome was keenly absorbed in the out-of-doors life on the water, an avid sailor and sporting enthusiast like no other. This love for boats and sailing is reflected in the holiday adventures of the children in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whether it is John, Susan, Titty and Roger in Swallows and Amazons, Dick and Dorothea in Winter Holiday or Joe, Bill and Pete in The Big Six, all the children are caught up in the excitements, delights and also responsibilities of sailing.
                   The books are all, of course, illustrated by Ransome himself, and the insertions of key full-page illustrations were obviously designedly done. Many of these concern the actions of the children in the books, their sailing down or up the river, fishing or other nautical activities. In fact, he lovingly draws the sailing boats (see Figures 1and 2: The Big Six:132, 145)and the rivers, with deft shading showing the undulating waves, the skies with birds circling in the far distance, or even the nighttime skies with stars twinkling and the boat sailing in the moonlight (Figure 3, Winter Holiday: 295). The illustrations clearly recreate a long English summer spent in delightful pursuits. There are descriptions of fishing on the river, sailing out to islands on the lake with all the expectancy of a travel expedition, picnicking in the woods and cooking on camp fires.
                      But what is interesting is in these full-page illustrations, Ransome, when delineating the English landscape, the leafy foliage of trees on the riverbank, or bushes or reeds by the river, takes recourse to an impressionistic vagueness. The precision we are accustomed to find in such matters, for instance, in the work of Arthur Robinson in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, is entirely absent here. Also interestingly, the human figures are glimpsed mostly in profile or in silhouettes. Ransome resorts to vagueness when it comes to delineating facial features—there are only suggestive outlines, a chin, a nose or rounded cheeks—no filling in with precisely drawn or shaded characteristics. This vagueness is probably deliberate, and not a sign of any deficiency in artistic skill, and Ransome perhaps wishes his young readers to imagine what his child protagonists are like for themselves, to guide and not to dominate their imagination with overmastering images.
                   This contention would also tend to be supported by the fact that when Ransome is sketching objects or river birds or sailing craft in the small illustrations that close chapters in the books he is quite specific about details. In fact, there are many illustrations which tend to reinforce the impression of a real world, maps and charts, objects like lanterns, bunk beds, compasses and cooking on camp fires (see Figures 4 and 5 Swallows and Amazons 333, Winter Holiday 279). He seems to be providing notes on the real world of exploration, action and adventure where his youthful protagonists all seem to be ambitious to venture forth. These illustrations are admittedly minor ones; Ransome himself does not include them in the list of illustrations with which he begins the narrative of each of these novels. Possibly he takes them as only providing supplementary background or some light relief. But they are very much part of our integral experience of reading these books. They not only remind us of the background of the stories but thrill us with their simplicity and beauty.
                       The sketches of various water fowls, ducks, moorhens, bearded tits, are all beautifully done with loving attention to detail. Also the river fish, like pike, carp and sturgeon, are vividly drawn. (Figures 6, 7 & 8 Swallows: 24, The Big Six 279). The natural world of the riverbank comes alive to us through these sketches. It is a vividly and vigorously drawn natural world, strong in its tones of earthy realism, alive with all the tints of a languorous summer’s day, but at the same, replete with people busy with their working lives. It may be a holiday world for the children, but their world borders on the workaday world. Also, this world is as quintessentially English as the natural world of The Wind in the Willows. But it is not a world where the characters lead a life of leisured ease. Of course, Ransome was writing stories of action and adventure, not attempting a quasi-mythological fable and telling commentary on his times like Grahame. But, due to his realistic overtones, no less reinforced by his illustrations, Ransome’s fictional world remains firmly anchored in its present reality.
                         The children’s activities of sailing on the river and lakes, camping, fishing and bird-watching epitomize the holiday activities, pluckiness and hardihood of British children of that age and generation. Ransome was also probably trying to convey lessons in resourcefulness and practical action in the face of natural and man-made disasters. These tales of action and adventure were to prove to have an enduring legacy in English children’s fiction, and we can find traces of this world even in the adventure stories of Enid Blyton.
                        The greatest tribute that can be paid to Ransome as illustrator is that he had the courage and inventiveness to illustrate his own stories. He drew well, though lacking the finesse and professional finish of the illustrators commissioned to illustrate children’s books, but left much to the imaginations of his young readers. His illustrations still delight us and will continue to encourage and inspire more generations to read Ransome’s books.

Works Cited:
Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. 1930. London: Random House, 2001.
---.Winter Holiday. 1933. London: Random House, 2012.
---. The Big Six. 1940. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
“Arthur Ransome”. https://www.fanasticfiction.com. Web. 20.05.2020
Archive of Children’s Book Illustrations of the Golden Age. https://www.pookpress.co.uk/illustrators-archive/

Bio: Dr Indrajit Bose is Assistant Professor and Section-in-Charge of English, Guru Nanak Institute of Technology, Kolkata. He completed his graduation from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata and M.A and Ph D from Jadavpur University. His area of specialization is in Conrad studies. He has also completed the eTBE certificate from the University of South Carolina, U.S.A and has been trained in ELT by the British Council. He has taught for more than 18 years, presented papers at national and international conferences and published in journals. He has also completed a UGC MRP on “Speaking Proficiency Development of EFL and ESL Learners in India” (2014-16). He also holds a diploma in French.

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