My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It was upon reading this that I came to realise something about Shirley Hughes and that is the great genuine humanity of her artwork. I have spoken before about how much I love her work (Alfie Gets In First possesses what is perhaps the most skilled usage of the picture book format I have ever seen) and A Brush With The Past is a rather wonderful addition to that canon. Canon. We don’t often use that word with children’s literature, or picture books, and it often gets fixed to something deeply removed from most people’s experience. The highest of terms. But in doing that, in allowing it to be taken and applied to work that perhaps deserves such a label yet achieves that at the exclusion of others, we do ourselves an injustice. So here I shall reclaim it. Shirley Hughes has a canon; it is a nuanced and smart and genuine and human and wonderful space which reflects all of what we are and all of what we could be. What skill this is, what skill.
A Brush With The Past is constructed on a quietly steady pattern, hinging on the dialogue between singular pages of information and lusciously rich double page spreads which detail the fifty years of history between the 1900s and 1950s. This spreads, human all, show different scenes from the period ranging from a family meal to lunching alone through to a business man’s meeting.
It’s the double page spreads that make this book into something quite spectacular. The detailed little notes around the years are fabulous; alternatively exuberant or quiet, calm and vibrant, and burning with the eye of an observer. We know Hughes can draw, but this is somebody who can capture. These are moments of life; all of them grounded in the human experience and captured so very carefully. An artistic blink. But oh those double page spreads, the richness of them. I returned to them often in this book just to stare and to let the great power of Hughes’ work hit me. This is palpable, honest, heartfelt and loving art. Look at how a boy sat at the table could sit with both feet flat on the chair but instead doesn’t; look at the energy trapped in that left leg of his, and the raised sole of the right foot. He doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to be.
Look at the other end of the table; the vague outline of the bare-boned tree outside and the little tableau occuring between the two women. The ambition that she’ll eat it. That she’ll appreciate it. The certainty that she won’t. The cat lurking, ready to pick up any leftovers. This is what I mean when I talk about humanity; Hughes finds detail and she pushes her work full of it.