Lawrence Zeegen has never been one to mince his words. The illustrator, writer and dean of design at London College of Communication has recently launched his new book Fifty Years Of Illustration which he co-wrote with Grafik editor Caroline Roberts. It’s an impressively ambitious undertaking with the duo condensing five decades into 1,000 images by 240 illustrators from 30 countries. Lawrence admits it’s a “pretty personal selection” but one that aims to “represent the movers and shakers across each decade according to the work I believe was instrumental in shaping the discipline.”
So alongside the likes of Milton Glaser, Guy Peellaert and Sue Coe there’s more modern practitioners and some lesser-known gems. We chewed the fat with Lawrence and found him in typically forthright mood…
The first line of the introductory essay is that “Illustration is the people’s art” – do you think this still rings true in 2014?
I absolutely believe it still rings true – as loudly today as it has done over the past 50 years. We all have a connection to and an infinity with illustration – from the illustrated children’s books read to us as kids to the album sleeves, CD cases and posters of our teenage years and from the illustrated underground comics and ‘zines to the fictional literature and illustrations in magazines and newspapers.
Of course the general public is now far more design-savvy than ever before; we live and breath design in ways unimaginable five decades ago, but for some reason illustration remains a discipline that floats in unchartered waters. So many people love the illustrated image; yet don’t quite yet know where the image comes from, who makes it and how. Many people are staggered to learn that illustration is a career choice, that it can be studied at art school. Fifty Years of Illustration, I hope, begins to chart the discipline’s resonance and the connection we have to the subject.
You have in the past been a fairly harsh critic of the contemporary illustration scene; did the process of putting this book together alter, affect or intensify those critiques?
To be fair I’ve not been a critic of the contemporary illustration scene as a whole but I do admit I have been critical of a certain annual trade fair and critical of those illustrators that follow blindly stylistic trends, that don’t find their own way or develop their own visual language. I’ve never been interested in people arriving at Club Zeitgeist when the party’s over – I’ve always looked for the folk who aim to create not to emulate.
Illustration is a hugely important aspect of contemporary culture; there are some truly excellent practitioners working today and the wealth of great work is staggering, but I do worry that many illustrators fail to acknowledge their responsibility for making work that questions and challenges; perhaps my optimism for the impact that the illustrated image can have isn’t one that’s shared by all?
I believe illustration has a role to play in defining our era – what today’s illustration looks like when looked back upon in a couple of decades time will be very interesting.
How aware do you think today’s illustrators are of the discipline’s history?
If you are passionate about your discipline, whatever it is, you’ll go out of your way to find out as much as you can about it. That should be from every angle – from the how-to-do technically, the how-to-do creatively, the how-to-do professionally and the what-to-learn of the discipline’s past.
I think we’re now finally at the stage of looking back to look forward and illustration’s history has not been well served so sourcing books on the history and context of the subject has not been easy. Illustration has appeared as a footnote in graphic design’s history and has rarely been able to present itself in the most appropriate way. We love the immediate, we love the here and now, we love tapping into what is happening at this very moment but looking back and revisiting illustration’s past is vital in helping us to understand the context in which the subject has developed.
"There are some truly excellent practitioners working today and the wealth of great work is staggering, but I do worry that many illustrators fail to acknowledge their responsibility for making work that questions and challenges."Lawrence Zeegen
There are some very big names in here as you’d expect but were there people you wanted to bring back to the art world’s attention?
Let me make one point quite clear – the art world isn’t interested in illustration so a “big name” in illustration means nothing to those outside of communication design and illustration.
I’m much more interested in helping to define illustration’s past for a generation of design and illustration students and professionals and also ideally in providing a book that is interesting for a wider audience, but appealing to the art world was never on the agenda.
What most surprised you when putting the book together?
How much work was going to be involved! Books like this are a labour of love to some extent, if you stop to work out the number of hours spent researching, reading, writing, editing, communicating, selecting, chasing you’d never write another book.
The most recent surprise, following the book’s publication, is the warmth of the reception it has started to receive. I’m really enjoying hearing that people are connecting to illustration in personal ways.
What lessons might illustrators draw from such a wide-ranging study?
The lessons I hope today’s illustrators might learn from the book are that illustration has a rich and diverse history; that it is a discipline in its own right and is so much more than simply being a subsection of graphic design. And that illustration’s heritage is one that that we should all feel immensely proud to be connected to but equally how important the responsibility we have is in ensuring that illustration has a voice and that it continues to be recognised for its contribution to contemporary culture.
I also hope that today’s illustrators might see how the mavericks and instigators shaped the discipline and to move forward illustration will continue to need those that aren’t afraid of taking creative risks, creating work that isn’t led by today’s stylistic whims and fashions but genuinely is setting a new vision and a new agenda for illustration.
Is there a style or approach that has gone out of fashion now that you’d love to bring back?
No, certainly not a stylistic approach visually – you have to know the past to create the future, of course, and whilst re-appropriating and renewing might be interesting, simply plundering and rehashing isn’t.
In terms of an approach I’d like to see illustrators held in the same regard in the 21st Century as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Illustration should be viewed as a discipline that is of real importance and of cultural significance and I think that has started to happen. I would have liked to have written this book over a decade ago but it had to wait for illustration to come back in from the shadows, and whilst there has been a proliferation of books on the subject in recent years, most have been concerned with the how-to-do and not the when-and-where of illustration’s past.
Fifty Years of Illustration opens the door, I hope, on an opportunity to discover the layers of illustration’s past, present and future.
About the Author
Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.