A young child, nestled in bed under a graceful pink quilt, all golden ringlets and rosy cheeks, reads “The Bed-Time Book,” whose cover shows the same image in miniature, shrinking to an implied infinity of golden-haired children, beds, and nightly stories. Fantasy is eternal.
The Brandywine River Museum’s current exhibition, “Flights into Fantasy,” captures the innocent effervescence of childhood imagination with over 100 images of fantasy by American and European illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including The Bed-time Book by Jessie Wilcox Smith. Characters as familiar as the pied piper and Babar the Elephant combine with fantastical fairies and mischievous elves, scenes of wonder and of exploration. They reveal mysterious lands, drenched in nostalgia and patterned with snippets of stories we still tell our children as they fall asleep.
Collector Kendra Daniel explains that rather than gathering a historical survey of illustrations, she selected works that are “artistically sensitive and conceptually imaginative.” The result is vibrant, entrancing. Each exquisite illustration deserves careful viewing, with an eye for delicious detail, abundant creativity, and technical mastery.
Kay Nielsen’s striking illustration And Flitted Away as Far as They Could from the Castle that Lay East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914) turns imagination into mythology, as a young couple rides down a rainbow/bridge away from a fire-breathing sun/dragon across a stormy sea. Nielsen expertly balances a wash of rich blue sky with illustrated-manuscript-like patterns and an Asian sensibility of emptiness and line, visually infusing the tale with magnificent drama and poetry. Prince Charming becomes Apollo; folklore becomes liturgy.
In contrast, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite creates delicate scenes where fantasy gently brushes the familiar world. Fairies, Elves and Sprites Meet a Boy in the Woods (c.1910) depicts the intangible moment when reality melds into imagination, as a young boy and a line of winged wonders peer at each other through the trees. Outhwaite meticulously forms every figure, tree leaf, and blade of grass from untouched white paper surrounded by a black ink background, so the drawing itself feels as elusive (and astounding) as the scene it depicts.
A playful sense of humor pervades many of the pieces. Charles Broughton’s He Refused to be Entangled in the Concerns of Fairyland (c.1900) shows a young boy staring sulkily into the distance, a book in his lap, while Little Bo Peep, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, a wicked witch, and a few Arabian Nights characters frolic around him. Even the boy’s most concentrated denial cannot eliminate the fantasy world he has created.
Although the artists’ names may not all be familiar, many of their stylized characters have become iconic. Grace Drayton’s Kindness to Animals (1923) features “Dotty Dumpling,” a wholesome paper doll with all of the round-cheeked, wide-eyed goodness of Drayton’s Campbell’s Soup kids. Panels from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, brought to life by artist Peter Newell, and Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline show storybook scenes familiar to children today. And although the circle of malicious tin-men-gone-awry might be more frightening than the Wizard himself, John Neill’s “You!” They Yelled (1909) clearly references his more well-known Oz characters.
“Flights into Fantasy” offers a not-to-be-missed visual story-telling experience. In the Brandywine’s galleries, the world becomes friendly, strikingly free of fear or discomfort as charming children confront the unfamiliar with wonder and amusement. Latent stories beckon from each image, a beautiful library of folktales and whimsy that will capture your attention and spark your own imagination.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, September 11, 2007