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Rare Exhibition With a British History Lands at Storyopolis Gallery

April 22, 1999|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A winsome sprite perches on a cherry tree branch, one tiny foot resting on a leaf, the lilac blue of her diaphanous veil duplicated in her fragile butterfly wings.

A lanky musician in a patched suit and an impossibly tall stovepipe hat sits on a pile of boulders against a background of silhouetted trees, playing his concertina. His brow is furrowed in concentration; his sheet music is held steady, spiked on the beak of an obliging little bird.

"The Cherry Blossom Fairy," a 1920 painting by Margaret Tarrant, and "The Musician," a 1912 illustration by William Heath Robinson, are two of more than 100 pieces inviting viewers of all ages into paper worlds of enchantment in "The British Art of Illustration, 1800-1999," a first-time exhibition running Friday through July at Storyopolis, the art gallery and children's bookstore in Los Angeles.

The work, owned by a private collector in England, has never before been exhibited in the United States. It includes images by artists not familiar here, and others by some of the greats: E.H. Shepard, Arthur Rackham, Kate Greenaway and Edmund Dulac. There are also pieces by such beloved contemporary artists as Helen Oxenbury, famous for her round-faced characters in chunky toddler board books that gently observe everyday life.

"So much of the work has a nostalgic feel, and it's whimsical and funny and beautiful," said curator Jacquie Israel. It's also a chance to see such Victorian-era artists as Greenaway, Dulac and Rackham, who "are the people who really opened the doors to having children's literature illustrated, and who have influenced many contemporary illustrators."

"Originally the art accommodated the text," Israel noted. "Today the art is just as important, if not sometimes more important to the story."

From the simplicity of Shepard's pen-and-ink drawings to "the elaborate designs of today by Lane Smith and William Joyce, it's interesting to see where it's been, where it is and where it's going."

The exhibition is also a rare opportunity for serious collectors: All but Oxenbury's work is for sale.

Shoppers had better have deep pockets, though. Shepard, who is best known for bringing A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" world to life, is represented here in evocative illustrations decorating children's poems, and prices per piece range from $750 to $5,000.

Tarrant's delicate fairy painting, from a series of small card paintings called "The Fairies in Our Garden," will set you back $15,150; Arthur Rackham, whose beautifully detailed goblins, fairies, dwarfs and gnarled trees are immediately recognizable, has the priciest piece: a 1905 watercolor titled "Breunor Flung His Sword High Above His Head" from "Stories of King Arthur."

Only 8-by-5 3/4-inches in size, it commands a hefty $62,000.

"Children's book art is exploding," Israel said, "and today children's book illustrators are being sought after for everything from New Yorker covers to films like 'A Bug's Life' and 'Toy Story.' Illustration is such an accessible art, these [artists] will be highly collectible as well."

You don't have to spend a dime to take this gallery tour through the Brits' funny, lovely and magical creative visions, however. And there's an exhibition-within-the-exhibition: The works on display by Oxenbury and her artist husband John Burningham ("Mr. Gumpy's Outing")--both award-winning children's book illustrators--will be housed in a separate space in the gallery. The artists will make a rare personal appearance, coming to the gallery on May 1.

BE THERE

"The British Art of Illustration, 1800-1999," Storyopolis, 116 N. Robertson Blvd., Plaza A, Los Angeles, Friday through July. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (310) 358-2500.

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