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Ludwig Bemelmans: 'Sketches for Madeline' Review - House of Illustration

1st March – 28th April 2019

Standard ticket - £7

Concessions - £5


In the corner of the House of Illustration, Bemelmans’ sketches create an atmosphere of a cute kindergartener’s room.

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

In two straight lines they broke their bread

And brushed their teeth and went to bed.

They left the house at half past nine

In two straight lines in rain or shine-

The smallest one was Madeline.”

Ludwig Bemelmans

Although Bemelmans’ first illustration of Madeline dates all the way back to the 1930s, Madeline remains an all-time favourite children’s book. I realise now that his drawings are so memorable that I can remember each page from his books. This exhibition at the House of Illustration takes your back to your childhood, nostalgically immersing you in Bemelmans’ entertainment.

The room begins with his background; an Austrian-born writer and illustrator, Bemelmans had no experience in illustration when he started, but in 1939 Madeline quickly became a hit after being published. The first half of the room displayed six rough drafts of characters: the illustrations of two nuns from the series Madeline and the line art of a city, already looked as if they were from the picture book themselves – though some of them were not even coloured! Bemelmans’ illustrations are not necessarily detailed and intricate; however, his simple outlining of objects creates lively and delightful images. There was a quote from him, saying, “my illustration must be absolutely clear for children… it must be simple, clear and at once understood.” It is true that his illustrations are clear in their representation but they are drawn in such a way that they are simultaneously neither concrete nor vague, colourful but not too vibrant.

There were some sketches from the second book, Madeline’s Rescue. I have not read Madeline in many years but when I first took a glance at one of these sketches, I could recall drawings that made up the story. Madeline’s Rescue follows the story of Genevieve, a dog that saves Madeline from drowning in the Seine, and how she becomes part of Madeline and the other girls’ family. It is just adorable. Its original sketches are lined up on the wall, taking the viewer through the whole experience of reading the picture book from a different perspective. The iconic scene where Madeline is dragged by Genevieve focuses on just the two of them, sketched in an undecorated and unembellished manner. This scene of a little girl almost dying—if imagined in reality—would be dramatic and serious, but Bemelmans chooses not to emphasise the aspect of the danger, instead focusing on the relationship between the dog and Madeline.

His warm-hearting sketches continue throughout the room, with no specific flow to go through his illustrations. The back corner of the exhibition sees a wall with a large portrait of Ludwig Bemelmans cheerfully looking at a dancing lady. Although the exhibition is focused on his sketches from Madeline, his personality is uncovered to some extent too: on top of his drawing and writing, Bemelmans' humour and imagination are also shown throughout. As readers well know, Madeline is captured as an outsider with a funny and warm-hearted character. It is known that Bemelmans was indeed a bit of an outsider himself and this personality is portrayed through his character. Madeline seems to be one-of-a-kind cheery book, but the exhibition reveals it to be much more than a series, rendering it popular regardless of time.

In addition to his sketches of the series itself, there are some of Madeline in different cities. She is well known for the image of Paris, however, he also depicts her in the United States and one of the walls is dedicated to Madeline in London. Bemelmans’ imagination of locations as well as his portrayal of these locations is unique, as he picks out the most impressive and momentous images of these cities. His use of colour and varied techniques of strokes make the pictures seem more eventful and cheery without sacrificing the culture of these locations. I enjoyed seeing the different manners and approaches taken in demonstrating Madeline in various scenes; the exhibition highly examines the whole aspect of Madeline in this small room of joy.

Personally, I am biased, as I grew up with Madeline, as my favourite children’s book, but the sketches brought back poignant memories. I was impressed, getting to know more about Bemelmans’ personality and the background that contributed to the creation of Madeline. This exhibition is prominent, the first in the UK to examine the stories of Madeline and it allows readers to remember what they used to love as a child. The exhibition could have been more extensive, as it is relatively small with a limited number of illustrations. Despite this, however, it was one of the most jubilant experiences I have had at an illustration exhibition.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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