Childhood Stories

This section brings together illustrations, or visual stories, which are rarely as straightforward as they seem.
Renowned nineteenth-century illustrators Walter Crane, George Roland Halkett and George Cruikshank create visual translations of well-known fairy tales. They use easily identifiable characters that reappear in multiple frames forming a sequential narrative. Such picture books were intended not only to entertain, but also to teach Victorian children morals and values. The violence and sexuality common in earlier versions of these fairy tales has been softened to suit the tastes of the Victorian public.
Arthur Boyd Houghton and Paula Rego’s unsettling images, though separated by over a century, move beyond illustrating existing children’s stories. Houghton depicts childhood scenes, while contemporary artist Rego provides a subversive reinterpretation of popular English nursery rhymes. Neither derives their images directly from texts. Rather, they take inspiration from personal experiences and memories, openly embracing the haunting and disconcerting aspects of childhood. Both abandon sequential narrative, condensing meaning into a single frame.

Selected works from this section


Three scenes from Hop omy Thumb
George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878), Three scenes from Hop o’ my Thumb, 1853 – 1864, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

George Cruikshank
Hop-o’my-Thumb 1853

George Cruikshank was the first major English artist to make a living by illustrating stories. A renowned caricaturist and reformed alcoholic, he wove a temperance message into a series of illustrated fairy tales entitled George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library (1853-4). In the illustration shown here, the drunken Ogre from Hop-o’my-Thumb has fallen asleep while pursuing the tiny protagonist Hop. In the earliest written version of this tale, Hop escapes the Ogre’s hut by tricking the Ogre into accidentally slitting the throats of his own children. In Cruikshank’s sanitized version, Hop merely steals a key. Further still, Cruikshank’s happy ending involves the King of Hop’s kingdom establishing gambling taxes, prohibition, and universal education. Cruikshank has incorporated his political views into the story and removed its most violent elements to suit Victorian tastes. Curiously, his illustrations are considerably less moralizing than his text, suggesting two different audiences: the text for adults, the pictures for children.



Frog transformed into a Prince, The
Walter Crane, The Frog transformed into a Prince, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Walter Crane
Illustration from the Frog Prince

Walter Crane was one of the most popular Victorian illustrators of children’s books. Between 1864 and 1876 he published colour-illustrations of many fairy tales as a collection of Toy Books; these were made up of six pages of text and six pages of illustration. Priced cheaply with huge print runs, the books were immensely successful and were still being issued 25 years after their first appearance. The image to the left, from The Frog Prince, depicts the moment when the handsome Prince is released from his bewitchment. Although the six illustrations that make up the series follow a sequential narrative, in this image multiple scenes are also condensed into one frame, showing the Princess throwing the frog against her bedroom wall and the different stages of his transformation. Crane illustrates the theme of the enchanted bridegroom again in the other Toy Book on display in this exhibition – The Beauty and the Beast.



Paula Rego Nursery Rhyme Series – Three Blind Mice 1989 Etching with aquatint. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © The Artist

Paula Rego
Nursery Rhyme Series – Three Blind Mice 1989

Three Blind Mice is part of the Nursery Rhyme Series by Paula Rego – a set of 30 prints depicting scenes from 30 English nursery rhymes. Initially conceived as a gift for her granddaughter, the series evolved from ink drawings into sinister etchings, five of which are on show in this exhibition. In Three Blind Mice (to the left), Rego has not set out to illustrate a narrative in a conventional sense, but has used our shared familiarity with this popular nursery rhyme to explore themes of childhood and memory. The story of the Three Blind Mice is not told here through sequential images, as we might expect, but is contained within a single moment of heightened drama – the farmer’s wife has just cut off the first mouse’s tail and is poised ready to strike again. With the Nursery Rhyme Series, Rego forces us to reconsider these supposedly childish tales by drawing out their darker undertones and allowing the ending of the story to unfold in the viewer’s imagination.