Visu­al Arts

Judith Kerr: The Illustrators 

  • Review
By – January 6, 2020

Most Amer­i­can read­ers like­ly iden­ti­fy Judith Kerr with her semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal children’s nov­el, When Hitler Stole Pink Rab­bit. Kerr’s rep­u­ta­tion in Britain as an author and illus­tra­tor of children’s books, unre­lat­ed to her sto­ry as a Jew­ish child flee­ing Nazi Ger­many, is more defin­i­tive of her career and her lega­cy. Thames and Hud­son has hon­ored this artis­tic lega­cy by ded­i­cat­ing the sec­ond vol­ume of their series, The Illus­tra­tor, to Kerr, who died in May of 2019. The ele­gant­ly designed ret­ro­spec­tive traces Kerr’s ear­ly life, artis­tic influ­ences, and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment from her birth in Berlin in 1923, to the still pro­duc­tive peri­od of her late life. Read­ers will gain a deep appre­ci­a­tion of Kerr’s artis­tic vision, as well as her inte­gra­tion of fam­i­ly with career in an ear­li­er era.

Kerr was born into an edu­cat­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Berlin; her father, Alfred Kerr, was a respect­ed the­ater crit­ic and jour­nal­ist whose career was destroyed as the Nazis took pow­er. He and his fam­i­ly were able to escape, reset­tling in Switzer­land, France, and even­tu­al­ly, Eng­land. Many of Judith Kerr’s ear­ly draw­ings are repro­duced in the book, show­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of her metic­u­lous approach to depict­ing the human form. As a young adult she would take life draw­ing class­es in Lon­don, lat­er reflect­ing that the knowl­edge she gleaned there became a per­ma­nent and essen­tial part of her con­scious­ness. Author Joan­na Carey’s respect for the spe­cif­ic ele­ments of Kerr’s artis­tic process comes through in her prose; she com­pares Kerr’s rev­er­ence for dif­fer­ent types of pen­cils to that of a som­me­li­er for fine wines. Observ­ing ani­mals on vis­its to the zoo with her young daugh­ter, Kerr dis­cov­ered that water­col­or paints were inad­e­quate for cap­tur­ing what she had seen, lead­ing her to dis­cov­er the val­ue of lay­er­ing col­ored inks for con­vert­ing a fam­i­ly out­ing into the uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence encap­su­lat­ed in a pic­ture book.

That pic­ture book became Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968), in which the title char­ac­ter inter­rupts the calm domes­tic­i­ty of a lit­tle girl named Sophie, curl­ing up on top of a refrig­er­a­tor and drink­ing out of the kitchen sink’s faucet while Sophie fear­less­ly holds onto its tail. This quin­tes­sen­tial account of an order­ly British rou­tine upend­ed by the entrance of some­thing wild and uncon­trol­lable was actu­al­ly cre­at­ed by an immi­grant who had fled chaos, an inter­est­ing note con­sid­er­ing the book’s huge suc­cess. Carey does not empha­size this implic­it ele­ment, repeat­ing Kerr’s own skep­ti­cism about deep metaphors in the sto­ry. In fact, there is some ten­sion through­out this biog­ra­phy between the facts of its subject’s ear­ly life and the author’s insis­tence that Kerr’s child­hood had been a series of near dis­as­ters which were tidi­ly avoid­ed. Kerr her­self gen­er­al­ly artic­u­lat­ed this per­spec­tive, empha­siz­ing her easy assim­i­la­tion into a new cul­ture and her com­fort with its val­ues. Yet there is some dis­so­nance in read­ing Carey’s account of the family’s escape as a huge adven­ture.” Carey describes a mourn­ful draw­ing which Kerr pro­duced at the age of ten, in which a class­room of chil­dren in Switzer­land are cheer­ful­ly inter­act­ing, while one girl sits alone weep­ing. The author ana­lyzes the picture’s tech­nique but seems uneasy con­fronting the real­i­ty of its mean­ing: Again, there is a strong sense of sto­ry­telling, and one can­not help won­der­ing what is going on.” Towards the end of the book, Carey con­nects Kerr’s con­stant revi­sions of her work to Alfred Kerr’s own loss­es, inter­pret­ing the artist’s per­fec­tion­ism as an inher­i­tance from her father, who was still both cor­rect­ing and rewrit­ing his own work after it was pub­lished — and even after the Nazis had had all his books pub­licly burnt.” Kerr’s father’s lit­er­ary lega­cy can be seen to illu­mi­nate a great deal about her own need for artis­tic control.

Kerr fol­lowed When Hitler Stole Pink Rab­bit (1971) with two sequels, Bombs on Aunt Dain­ty (1975) and A Small Per­son Far Away (1978), trac­ing the con­tin­ued sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty which her fam­i­ly endured even after find­ing safe­ty in Eng­land. Carey alludes to the dark­ness of the line draw­ings for When Hitler Stole Pink Rab­bit; the orig­i­nal cov­er illus­tra­tion shows a girl and her father wan­der­ing in Paris, her father look­ing con­fused as he holds a French news­pa­per as his guide. On the left, a pink toy rab­bit holds up a flag embla­zoned with a swasti­ka. Kerr may have kept calm and car­ried on as her life pro­gressed, but her work always acknowl­edged the com­plex­i­ties of her expe­ri­ence. Judith Kerr: The Illus­tra­tors offers a visu­al­ly rich win­dow into a cre­ative spirit.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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