Monday, 12 May 2008

Gladys Peto (1890-1977)


I’ve always been intrigued by the illustrations of Gladys Peto. The combination of a precision line wrapped around flattened areas of colour and pattern gives them an unmistakeable flavour enabling them to be spotted at twenty paces. There’s some affinity with the world of William Brown but the children are often listless and lacking in energy. Another distinctive feature is the absence of shadows. Her figures, mostly children, inhabit a sunlit world in which not a single shadow falls on the ground. The result is subtly disorientating and contributes a certain dreamlike quality. They are superior versions of the type of drawing for children that inspired Glen Baxter’s exercises in the absurd.


The Bookman cover from October 1929 shows her at her best, employing a limited colour palette with a lovely wandering line and a perfectly weighted distribution of pattern and contour. This example of her advertising work for Allenbury’s Infant Foods is a striking image of a squadron of rosy-cheeked children in night attire drifting silently through the night sky with more than a hint of Art Deco. I soon discovered after some casual research that Gladys already has her internet champion in the person of Jeanette Payne whose blogspot (highly recommended) is entirely dedicated to her work. Jeanette is clearly an expert on her subject and has displayed the entire range of the Peto output including a fascinating selection of advertising illustration.


In the twenties and thirties there was a Gladys Peto industry turning out large format colour illustrated books for girls at Bedtime, Twilight or in the Gloaming! Times were Merry, there were Sunshine Tales, Playtime Stories, Summer Days, Holiday Stories and Happy Tales. There was a Peto product for every occasion and well behaved children everywhere were likely to be rewarded with gift-wrapped copies. Despite all this emphasis on pleasure, the children in the illustrations were almost always unsmiling, often with distinctly ambiguous expressions of the sort that Balthus became famous for. The sense of orderly tweeness is undercut by curious images of Alsatians taking afternoon tea or serried ranks of passive mute schoolgirls.



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