Shelf Appeal is far too sniffy to take part in hashtag nonsense on social media. Except. This one was too good to miss. I saw that it was #nationalcarrotday today on Twitter. To be fair to me (defensive, much?) it was a rather nice botanical print of carrots, specifically Ernst Benary’s chromolithograph of carrots from Album Benary (1876), tweeted by one @DrCaiParryJones, that got me thinking. But that’s how they pull you in isn’t it?
Anyway. What it got me thinking, or remembering, was a favourite children’s book on my shelves. It’s a thin volume, so mostly hides itself away amongst the spines. And I’ve had it a good while, but never thought to post about it, really. And then, Twitter. And then, carrots.
The very idea of writing a book about a carrot somehow seems to me both a particularly British, and a particularly wartime thing to do. Wartime as carrots were an object of propaganda affection, deemed to help us see better in the dark. As promoted by one dodgy looking anthropomorphised old man character called Doctor Carrot: ‘the children’s best friend’.
Whilst this book’s carrot is obviously related to Doctor Carrot, it has a gentler outlook and, dare I say it, a nicer artist’s hand behind it. Val Biro was a Hungarian artist who came to Britain in 1939 on the eve of the war, to study at the Central School of Art in London. He’d been sent in the nick of time by parents worried about Hitler’s antics. He drew a lot of Radio Times stuff, and, apparently, over 3000 book jackets.
This book was published in 1944 by the Sylvan Press. At the time Biro was, I think, their studio manager. I can’t find much about the author, Kate Barlay, but I just noticed she has scrawled a nice inscription on the acidic wartime title page of this copy. I missed that detail all these years, probably in my scramble to paw over the illustrations.
And what illustrations, almost too delicate for a children’s book. The cover, with it’s pale colouring, is perhaps the least successful drawing here. The fine line illustrations inside are much more the thing. This final illustration, of our carrot ‘starring’ in a poor artists academy painting submission, is grand. And ‘of course they awarded the first prize to the little carrot, exactly as he had dreamed.’
When emptying the house of my late mother in law and packing her huge stash of books I found one kids book that made me think of you and your carrot book. It’s about Murphy the Irish Potato, he wears a tiny top hat and carries a cane. When the boxes come out of storage to be properly sorted I’ll try and remember to get phots for you, it really is one of those ‘of its time’ books.