I picked up this telling of the Christmas story on the recommendation of Colin West, a brilliant children’s illustrator with exquisite taste to match.
Illustrated by the great Harold Jones, a contemporary of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, Once in Royal David’s City is the follow up to his most successful work, (also with Kathleen Lines), Lavender’s Blue – a book so good it spawned the Kate Greenaway award.
There is no doubting that this is a very special children’s book indeed. With its healthy pedigree and use of the weighty gospel according to Luke and St Matthew, it is intended to be a Christmas book to treasure.
Line’s words run along the bottom of each double page spread like the engraved text on the original frame of an old master.
Good enough to hang in an art gallery this may be, but Harold Jones is not simply a fine artist, he’s mastered the picture book medium. Colin West notes his ‘interesting technique of “fading” his double spreads at the centre to avoid the problem of the book’s gutter.’
The book alternates between black and white spreads and colour, a money saving device common in publishing at the time according to West, and one which really adds to the atmosphere.
With paper rationing ending just a few years before its publication, beautifully printed books had been in short supply, so it’s interesting to imagine how Once in Royal David’s City would have looked to a child waking up on Christmas morning 1956 and unwrapping this luminous gift.
Colin West’s full piece on Once in Royal David’s City can be seen on storysnug.com