Life in the big smoke

The fairytale art of Elsa Beskow

There are images from childhood that inspire you and stay with you. Swedish illustrator Elsa Beskow is the artist behind some of the images that still manage to bring back some of that childhood wonder for me. I remember leafing through dusty, old books with her illustrations at the summer-house, the perfect place to read about folklore and fairytales, flowers coming to life and strange creatures living in the forest.

Recently I stumbled across an article about Beskow’s work, where her style was described as having been seen by some as weak and lacking in depth. I think she’s the opposite, able to capture something magical, a sense of childhood wonder and innocence.

Elsa Beskow was born in Stockholm in 1874. She’s said to have loved fairytales from an early age and to have started telling stories before she was able to speak properly, with her older brother Hans helping her to find the words she was struggling for. She grew up surrounded by fairy-tales and nature, which is reflected in her work.

When she was fifteen her father died of pneumonia. Elsa, her five siblings and their mother had to move in with Elsa’s mother’s unmarried sisters and brothers who were already living together.

It was a liberal home where organisations like the women’s movement were discussed and approved of. These values are reflected in Elsa’s picture books. The Flowers’ Festival, from 1914, argues for freedom of speech for everyone, and some suggest that Mrs Chestnut, in her loose-fitting dress, is depicted as pregnant – a daring thing to do at a time when the middle classes were of the view that pregnant women should be kept out of sight.

Elsa started writing and illustrating some of her stories during the first world war, escaping into a world that was innocent and peaceful, when the real world wasn’t.

In 1897 she married fellow art student Nathaniel Beskow, after having been his model. But her new husband didn’t stick to the artistic path and instead became a doctor of theology. Apparently that wasn’t a very lucrative choice and during their marriage Elsa became the main breadwinner. The couple had six sons and Elsa supported the whole family by producing one new book every year. I find it amazing that she found the resources to raise six sons and still keep producing her work. Although she’s said to have described her married life as “every year another book and every other year a boy”.

One of her children died tragically before his eight birthday, two others went on to become famous in their own right as authors.

The family lived in an old wooden mansion outside Stockholm, with a huge over-grown garden. A lot of the inspiration for Elsa’s drawings is said to have come from there.

One of my favourite author’s Tove Jansson writes about rediscovering Beskow’s work as an adult and the way it made her feel.

“I looked through all of Elsa Beskow’s books, trying to find the key to the enchantment that was still present. All her illustrations were sublimely simple and honest. There was no trace of make-believe for its own sake, no other effects than the magic of making large things small and small things gigantic.

Elsa Beskow does not make use of the storyteller’s privilege of painting the lawn blue and filling the forest with animals that do not exist. Rather, she concerns herself with reality and lets her story take place there. Suddenly I realized how wonderful it was to be able to recognize my own forest, my own ditch, my own meadow, my own blueberry plants, and I was filled with admiration for an artist who dared to paint a yellowy-green bush with pink roses and to insist that the sky really is pale blue.”

See also: The fairytale art of John Bauer

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