Imagine what the quintessential British bookstore might look like. If you picture a little shop in an 18th century building stocked untidily with old and unusual books from floorboards to rafters, then you could be thinking of Foster’s Bookshop in Chiswick, London.
The owner Stephen Foster is a second generation bookseller who bills himself as a purveyor of “outmoded educational tools and antiquated entertainment devices.” He looks the part, don’t you think?
I had stopped in the shop a few times since moving here, and thought it would make a good blog post source, so I made an appointment with Stephen to come in and photograph some of his children’s books – if he wouldn’t mind.
What I had thought would be a half-hour visit turned into the better part of an afternoon, talking and viewing.
The first volume he took down from his shelves was a 1906 (U.S.) edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, by J. M. Barrie, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Stephen told me that he grew up near Kensington Gardens and that he and his siblings visited the park often when they were young. Walking through the park where Peter Pan’s stories took place must have been wondrous for a child. Would that not make you believe in fairies, too?
Most Americans think of Peter Pan as Disney portrayed him in the 1953 animated film – an impish young boy in a pea green suit and elf slippers. That is nothing like J. M. Barrie’s original character as shown by Rackham – an infant wandering the park and befriending it’s otherworldly denizens after closing time.
I clearly remember the first time I saw illustrations by Arthur Rackham. It was in a little bookstore owned by a friend of my parents, and she carried a number of publications from Green Tiger Press, which specializes in reproducing antique and vintage illustrations. I was a pre-teen who was still enthralled by fairy tales, and who drew a lot. Rackham was like God.
A few years later I visited London with my parents, and was ecstatic to find whole books about Arthur Rackham that I could purchase and take home with me. I spent hours looking at the illustrations in those books, wishing I could see more of his work, but 19th century picture books were not something a teenager could easily access in the U.S. in the 1970s, at least not in my home town in California. I had to be content with the few images that had been chosen for reproduction.
Until last week.
Next Stephen pulled down a 1905 edition of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, also illustrated by Rackham.
Because there were so many illustrations in each volume Stephen showed me, only a few of which I had seen before, I was determined to take as many pictures as possible to share here. The photos aren’t great – I was taking them under poor lighting on the only space in the shop that wasn’t piled high with books and prints – but I hope they will still give you some of the thrill that I felt turning those pages to reveal so many wonderful images.
I learned a few things from studying Rackham as a teen that I still keep in mind when I work: Don’t just illustrate what the author describes – imagine scenes beyond the text; if you limit your palette to a only three or four colors, nothing in your image will “clash” with anything else. It is part of why Rackham’s illustrations are so pleasingly quiet, visually.
My favorite image of Rackham’s as a teen was from Undine. The coquettish creature coming up from the sea had a lot of appeal to me then. I wondered what that look in her eyes was about, and what story the other pictures from the book would tell. I had only seen a few.
And there it was, between Spike Milligan and The Hobbit.
Okay, so I went all out here. I took photos of pretty much every image in the book, just in case there was another teenager out there who wondered the same thing about this girl.
The story is similar to The Little Mermaid. Lots of romance and melodrama and a moralistic ending.
Even the endpapers are beautiful.
I hope this wasn’t too much of a good thing for you.
If you like old books and happen to be in London, you should add Foster’s Bookshop to your sightseeing list. It will be worth the tube ride to Chiswick.
I plan to go back and peruse the shelves further, and I’m sure another blog post will come of it. At least, that will be my excuse for taking more photos…