Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 03 Aug 2017

Hilda Boswell

Boswell was born in Hackney in 1903 into a comfortable middle class background – her father was a well-established architect. Perhaps given her family background it’s not surprising that Hilda herself wanted to pursue a career in the art world and she attended both Hornsey School of Art and Regent Street Polytechnic where she found her vocation as an illustrator.

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She excelled in the medium of watercolour and was influenced by some of the great figures in children’s book illustration such as Greenaway, Rackham and Beatrix Potter who were popular in the 1920s and early 1930s. Her breakthrough came in the 1930s when the Amalgamated Press gave her the opportunity to work on picture strips for comics. Her career in comic illustration was long and successful:

She drew adventure strips for British comic papers published by the Amalgamated Press, including "Call o' the West" in Butterfly and "Starr of the Silver Screen" in Sparkler, both in 1937. Her longest-running series was "Strongheart", based on a canine hero from silent films, which she took over from G. William Backhouse and drew in Crackers from 1939 to 1944, and thereafter in Jingles. She contributed to a Robin annual in 1958 and a Swift annual in 1960.

(quotation care of the Fandom website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilda_Boswell)

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Early in the 1940s however Boswell got the opportunity to illustrate a children’s book for the first time. Her work on Edward and Gumbo brought her to the attention of the editors of Enid Blyton’s prolific book collections known as ‘the flower’ and the ‘the holiday’ series. Boswell’s clean and romantic drawings and watercolours of children in safe domestic situations or enjoying a very British garden or countryside chimed perfectly with Blyton’s content.

She also had a go at writing and illustrating her own books and in 1950 she published The Little Birthday Horse and in 1965 Little Crazy Car. A number of poem ‘Treasuries’ followed but her style never changed – boys and girls in an idealised nature remained her USP.

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Boswell died in 1976 and it’s fair to say that her illustrative style looks rather staid, simple and old-fashioned these days – especially in a golden age of children’s book illustration where the rules of what can be done are constantly being rewritten. But I would argue that it is possible to see her influence in later illustrators like Eric Kincaid and maybe even in Shirley Hughes ( although I consider Hughes to be an infinitely better and more complex artist).

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What Boswell does do however is capture an idealised notion of childhood – middle-class, white, gender-stereotyped – that dominated children’s popular culture in the two decades or so after the Second World War. This was an uncomplicated idea of what childhood should be like and has a sort of nostalgic appeal to those who wish that children would go back to playing with simple toys and enjoying the outdoors without having to worry about safety. It’s a world everyone knows never really existed but one which quite a lot of parents think of fondly as an ideal they wish they could bequeath to their children. Artists like Boswell were responsible for establishing this particular fantasy of childhood and her illustrations have a social and historical importance – whether you like them or not. I’m not a huge fan of this particular style of illustration but I do acknowledge their cultural and historical significance – having a couple in any collection is important if you want to understand how children’s book illustration evolved.

Terry Potter

August 2017

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