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Book of the Month: Illustration and Heritage

by Katie McCurrach, Quentin Blake Centre team

Our Book of the Month for March is Illustration and Heritage by Rachel Emily Taylor. At Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, we’ve been thinking a lot about heritage as we work on the restoration of New River Head, a former waterworks in Clerkenwell which will become our new home. We spoke to Rachel about the role of the illustrator in heritage projects.

Rachel Emily Taylor describes heritage as a process by which we imagine the future through preserving the past in specific ways. In her book, she uses case studies and interviews with illustrators to explore how their work can contribute to and disrupt heritage, revealing and reconstructing hidden stories.

Photograph of two hands opening up a copy of the Illustration and Heritage book.
Illustration and Heritage photographed by Rachel Emily Taylor, 2024

Rachel says, “Illustration practitioners can bring to light marginalised figures in history and highlight a historical narrative that might have been overlooked or not recorded.”

In Illustration and Heritage, she suggests that the illustrator has a key role in critiquing institutions, engaging new audiences, and challenging dominant narratives by reinterpreting historical information, making links between ideas, and highlighting gaps in records.

This is a huge responsibility as Rachel explains, “The illustration practitioner should be aware of their positionality in relation to the [museum or gallery] collection, and the ethical implications of navigating engagements with cultures, historical people, and artefacts… We cannot ask the dead for their permission when we include them in our work, but how we portray them can affect how others make sense of the world in the present and the future.”

Photograph of two hands opening up a copy of the Illustration and Heritage book.
Illustration and Heritage photographed by Rachel Emily Taylor, 2024

One example Rachel uses is work by Amy Goodwin, who researched fairground females (four women and one elephant) using oral history and archive research. She used this to create illustrative spaces using her craft of fairground signwriting. She worked hard to reduce bias – giving each an equal amount of space and being aware of her own position within the fairground community.

Rachel says, “Goodwin’s project reveals how illustration can be employed as a tool that can imaginatively respond to absences in historical records, drawing attention to people whose stories aren’t found in the material culture preserved by museums and archives.”

A fairground sign with the bold text: her booming voice delivering colourful language in a fruity west country accent.
Amy Goodwin, The Unveiling of Sophie: Her fine reputation, edged in profanity [Sign 1a. from Sophie, Colourful Language], 2020. © Amy Goodwin

Rachel’s own work with the Foundling Museum illustrates this beautifully and is shown in the book. She says, “I was looking at the display of ‘foundling tokens’ in a museum cabinet - engraved coins, swatches of fabric, items of jewellery, handwritten poems, everyday items such as a thimble and a hazelnut. These small, emotive objects were part of the admissions process to the hospital and, later, could be used as an identifier if a family member returned to reclaim their child. Following an exhibition in 1858, the tokens were ‘orphaned’ from the stories of their owners’ lives when they were put on display, as the paperwork was mixed up. I questioned if illustration practice could be used as a tool to close the gap between the museum objects and their stories. Could illustration be employed as a method to mend this broken link?”

Rachel details how she used archival research, workshops with children and, finally, an illustration installation to explore the underrepresentation of the foundling children and the power structures in the museum.

A display of paintings inside a room with very grand decoration including large oil paintings on the wall and a wooden floor.
Rachel Emily Taylor, Kept Within The Bounds, The Foundling Museum, 2016

Illustration and Heritage also looks at some of the work Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration has been doing in relation to the New River Head site. Rachel met and interviewed Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe who created new artefacts for historical characters for our Engine House Residency in 2021.

Rachel says, “What struck me about the project, was that they were researching and uncovering stories about the people who had lived and worked at the site in the past, which then led me to wonder about the current stories taking place during the contemporary building project – would there be any similarities or overlaps? Could our understanding of the past help us to shine a new light on what is happening today?”

A close up of a saw with an illustrated blade that depicts a landscape.
Steel Saw Blade by Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe © Justin Piperger
A desk covered in artefacts, books and archaeology tools.
New River Folk by Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe © Paul Grover

An interview with Quentin Blake Centre’s Artistic Director, Olivia Ahmad, gives clues about how illustrators will continue to engage with historical narratives about the site, such as the role New River Head played in the distribution of water across London, and the illegal swimming that went on in the 18th century.

A photograph of a brick building with a cobbled path against a blue sky.
New River Head © Justin Piperger

The book takes an academic approach but is very readable, providing a wealth of information for both illustration experts and newcomers. Rachel says that she hopes that the book “can encourage museums and historical sites to engage with illustrators, as their work can enrich, complicate, and subvert dominant narratives.”

She aims for her book to be a starting point for discussion, and certainly it raises many interesting questions for illustrators and readers to think about further.

Buy a copy of Illustration and Heritage

You can get 20% discount on Illustration and Heritage via this link using the code: ILLUSTRATION20. Valid to end of May 2024.

Illustration and Heritage by Rachel Emily Taylor. Published by Bloomsbury.