Thursday, 9:47am
19 October 2023

Picturebook people

The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen

Chronicle Chroma, 2022, £26. Reviewed by Michael Kirkham

Illustrator Michael Kirkham pays tribute to the Provensens

Authors, illustrators and designers Alice and Martin Provensen were a wife-and-husband team who made children’s picturebooks together for more than four decades. Their resolutely cult status – despite two Caldecott awards – is now being nudged towards the mainstream with a coincidental trilogy of reissues and collections. The second in this trilogy is Chronicle Chroma’s The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen.

Sketches from Leonardo DaVinci, 1984 (left) and A Year at Maple Hill Farm, 1978 (right). Top. Cover of The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen.

Alice (1918-2018) and Martin (1916-87) were both born in depression-era Chicago. Both moved house regularly and both sought solace in the libraries of the strange towns in which they found themselves. After these parallel childhoods they both graduated from the University of California to the animation studios on the West coast. It wasn’t until the Second World War, however, that they finally met, while doing war work in Washington D.C. They fell in love, married and, as Alice put it, became ‘one artist’.

After the war, they moved to New York City and began a career in picturebooks. They arrived just as Little Golden Books, their first publisher, was reinventing the industry with its accessible and affordable full colour productions. Alice and Martin soon moved from the city to start a family and run a picturesque farm in upstate New York, but they never stopped making books. They worked together until the late 1980s, with Alice continuing alone well into the 2000s after Martin’s death.

The Fireside Cook Book, 1949.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, 1956.

Town and Country, 1984.

The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen is a handsome and generous overview of their vast body of work. Newly photographed original artworks and previously unpublished studies are arranged chronologically, grouped by book. The accompanying text tends towards human interest with an interview with the couple’s daughter Karen Provensen, and the recollections of friends. Karen told Publishers Weekly: ‘The truth is, it's so hard to be objective. I'm very sentimental about their work. This is my mother and father, and that was my childhood.’ An essay by picturebook scholar Leonard S. Marcus contextualises their endeavours while the jewel in the crown is a pair of exquisite acceptance speeches by the Provensens themselves.

Back cover – from A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1951.

The mid-century mannerisms of early period Provensen provide the design cues for this volume although it was in their later work that they developed a more personal visual language and idiosyncratic authorial voice. It is this work that remains the most lively and relevant today.

Shaker Lane, 1987.

Shaker Lane (1987) is a light, though affecting, social history built on close observation and a highly developed humanity. The lively handling of the tempera is perfectly tuned to express the energy of the improvised township and its inhabitants.

The Glorious Flight, 1983.

The Glorious Flight (1983) tells the fail-and-fix story of Louis Blériot – the first person to cross the channel by air. His rickety Edwardian aircraft rattle, clatter and echo across strange mud-coloured landscapes before the whole book takes to the air and becomes clear and light. The couple attempted to write the text for this book ‘with a French accent’ – an example of their habitually playful approach.

Tales from the Ballet, 1968.

Unfortunately, as The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen quite literally and exclusively focuses upon the Provensens’ Art, those readers without the original books to hand will have no sense of how these images have been carefully choreographed to work with their text – a process the acceptance speeches emphasise as the central activity of a picturebook maker. Similarly, the couple’s extensive work in the design of the books themselves, likely of great interest to Eye readers, is almost entirely absent.

A Horse and A Hound, A Goose and A Gander, 1979,

No matter. This is a spirited introduction to a pair of literary and artistic figures who were characterised by their constant growth and profound ambition for their discipline. Who wouldn’t benefit from such an introduction?

Also look out for The Provensen Book Fairytales. Originally 1971, reissued by New York Review Books, 2021 and The Truth about Max, published by Enchanted Lion Books, October 2023.

Michael Kirkham, illustrator and lecturer, University of Dundee / Edinburgh

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues