There’s a profound melancholy about the world of Anthony Browne, the author and illustrator whose work is currently featuring at a exhibition in the Beaney museum in Canterbury. One of the first rooms into which you walk, as a visitor, has a faded brown dressing-gown hanging on the wall; the notice below indicates that it used to belong to Browne’s father, who died when Anthony was seventeen and from whose death Browne has not really recovered – such a profound event has shaped the artist’s work ever since. The dressing-gown itself appears in ‘My Dad,’ a hymn to the supposed invincibility of fathers as perceived by young children.
Moving round the exhibition, the visitor is transported through seven different worlds; the sinister breakfast-table silence of a father and daughter, the father’s newspaper-reading at the table creating a wall of separation between them in a desolate kitchen, bereft of creature comforts; the Forest, with evocative tapestry-trees hanging from the ceiling, and which you enter by crawling through a tunnel in the style of Alice in Wonderland, to explore several of Browne’s fairy-tale adaptations. King Kong’s Close is an homage to Browne’s illustrated version of the story.
There is also a section devoted to Browne’s beloved trompe l’oeil effects, where nothing is as it first appears: an apple-wheeled bicycle, a broom morphing into an elephant’s trunk, a giant eye looking out at you through a window of which Philip K Dick would have approved. (Near the end, there’s a striking one involving the painting of a fence, which I won’t spoil for you: you just have to see it for yourself…)
The world of Willy the Wimp, the loveable chimpanzee with self-confidence issues, also appears, with Willy himself marching across the wall and into a lamp-post. Gorillas and chimps are a recurrent feature in Browne’s books, and the twisting of situations such that a visit to the zoo sees them looking in at humans through the bars of a cage is curiously unsettling.
There’s the opportunity for children to write a postcard to Willy, telling him what they are good at – celebrating minor strengths and achievements is a facet of Browne’s work that both lends it its redeeming charm and invests it with a powerful, revelatory quality – as well as to play the Shape Game, whereby they can turn shapes on paper into whatever they choose. They can post their postcards to Willy into a post-box that stands close by; my children each wrote two with great enthusiasm They are also invited to re-draw the melancholy kitchen scene in a happier fashion, which both my children also did.
Browne’s books lie scattered around the exhibition, as do tables and chairs and cushions which invite visitors to linger and read the stories from whence the illustrations have sprung. You can also push buttons to hear children reading parts of a story too. Browne’s illustrations adorn the walls, some of them life-sized, and afford the opportunity to get up close to the pictures, which are touching, unnerving, unsettling and funny in equal measure; the image of Willy going to an aerobics class is brilliantly funny ( be warned: you may find yourself laughing out loud, which can often be a bad thing in a library!).
Entry costs £4 for adults, and two children per paying adult are admitted free. The exhibition is at Canterbury’s Beaney Museum until 24 February next year; find out more online here. Be prepared to be enchanted, amused and just occasionally profoundly moved as well as you share Browne’s unique vision.
Review by Tom O’Bedlam.