One of my favourite ever exhibitions was curated by Quentin Blake at the National Gallery in 2001. Entitled Tell me a Picture, the idea was to take one work of art for every letter of the alphabet, which visitors were then invited to ‘read’. As well as introducing me to artists including Lisbeth Zwerger and Roberto Innocenti, it changed my perception of what illustration could do way beyond visualising what was in the accompanying text.
Shortly before Christmas a visit to the House of Illustration at King’s Cross had a similarly profound effect. Although I had once again gone to see work by Quentin Blake, who was showing his work for a Beatrix Potter story, along with an excellent Edward Ardizzone retrospective, it was a room full of ceramics by the illustrator Laura Carlin that really captured my imagination. In the blurb she echoes Quentin Blake’s mission statement: ‘As soon as I found out that an illustrator’s job was to tell stories through pictures, I wanted to be one.’
The centrepiece was a 650 piece earthenware tile mural, depicting the entire history of London from the time of the dinosaurs to the age of pigeons and Pret.
Commissioned by the House of Illustration, this work appears to have been a journey of discovery for Carlin. ‘My work with ceramics is self-taught,’ she writes. ‘Yet there is freedom in not knowing the rules and, more importantly, it helps keep me looking and learning. This feeds back into my job as an illustrator. I am forced to look again and question my way of working.’
There may be no written story to accompany this exhibition, but I found myself lost in the work in just the same way as a good book might have drawn me in.
Beyond the History of London, there is much else to admire and wonder about, like these mysterious earthenware statues, dwarfing a collection of tiny hand painted metal onlookers.
Ceramics is a hugely playful exhibition, and you can sense Carlin’s joy as she is freed from her usual medium and able to discover new forms and ideas, still retaining her distinctive style.
Having left the gallery and browsed the shop, I couldn’t resist another peek at Carlin’s Ceramics before leaving. It’s a small exhibition, but one that insists you take another look. As Carlin herself says in her accompanying note: ‘Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that I enjoy looking and most importantly, surprising myself.‘
Laura Carlin: Ceramics runs until February 7th 2017 at the House of Illustration.