The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Old Herbaceous

This dusty old book, by Reginald Arkell, is a touching and wistful story about an aging gardener during a time of change and his relationship with old Mrs Chatteris. Lady Chatterley's gardener he is not, but the book is charming and touching with little bits of old fashioned wisdom scattered around the pages.

What really makes it desirable (and is the reason I spotted it) is the illustrations by John Minton, one of my favourite artists, and one whose life is every bit as poignant as any story.

His distinctive line graced many post-war books; notably he illustrated Elizabeth David's cookery books. He belongs to the great era of British artists, to the tradition of Eric Ravillious and Edward Bawden, the golden age when Radio Times comissioned real artists and they casually gave them little gems to print. Minton was born in 1917 and in the second World War was a conscientious objector. Prone to depression (and alcohol) he died of a drugs overdose at a tragically young age. One can only imagine what he might have gone on to achieve.

The bucolic scenes of rural happiness have a nervous edge to the line work. In hindsight one could almost image a troubled hand made the pictures. And yet I always felt he drew with such confidence and purpose. Certainly his approach (carried on by many subsequent book illustrators in the 1960s) was a huge influence on my work. It also looks back, I think, to an earlier age of British art, for in Minton I can see a worthy heir to Samuel Palmer, which is about the highest tribute I could pay the man.


  1. What a fabulous looking book. Makes me want to read it. Shame there is not a library where you can borrow out of print and vintage books.

  2. Yes, Samuel Palmer is in there! A lovely book, James.

  3. I can imagine every grandparent wanting to buy this book for their dearest little ones - the cover image is very endearing. Visuals aside, I'm completely hooked on the title!

  4. Well it's not at all a children's book, I think grandparents would buy it for themselves. What's interesting is the amount of illustration - why isn't fiction produced like this now? It jolly well should be.

  5. It looks fabulous. I wonder of I have any John Mintons in my collection.

  6. I've not read this...I love the style of the illustrations though...it seems so quaint now, yet, as you say there does seem to be an edge to his work.
    What a tragic time was had, for those who objected to the war...some things never change...
    May I ask...where did you find this little gem?

  7. Saviour you should have a look. He illustrated a lot in his short life and they are very distinctive and influential

    Oberon's Wood - Indeed some things never change, Minton was evidently very tormented. I found this book in a second hand bookshop in Cromer, Norfolk. I dion't think it's especially rare... but maybe with Minton's illustrations it's more collectable...

  8. I have been introduced to you by Jackie Morris and I am delighted to make your acquaintance. I wanted to persuade you to go to Venice. Go in the winter, not the summer, that way you will experience its inexpressable beauty without the crowds and will feel that sense of belonging which is hard to do when completely surrounded by summer visitors who look out of place dressed in their flip flops and garish colours. You must, as Jeanette Winterson advises in The Passion, arrive by sea - catch the vaperetto from the airport - allow nearly an hour for the journey to St Marks or the Rialto - it is just as breathtaking at night as it is in the daylight. You will fall in love, I have no doubt.

  9. Mr. Mayhew,
    I stumbled upon your blog while searching the internet high and low for a favorite children's book I remember as a kid. It contained only illustrations that were meticulously drawn in black ink and contained various elements, like animals, hidden throughout the image. My mother remembers the author as being likely Chinese or Asian based on the name but other than that we have no information about this book / author. She also remembers there being more than one book. If you can help in my search please let me know. My name is Corey and my email address is cbrooksasheville@hotmail.com Thanks.