Top 6 Illustrations by Percy J. Billinghurst

On November 21, 2018, I wrote a blog post about an image that I shared to social media which got an insanely large amount of reactions. The artist was Percy J. Billinghurst, who is best known for his illustrations for A Hundred Anecdotes of Animals (1901), and A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine (1900).

For this blog entry, I'd like to take a shameless jaunt down memory lane as I count down my picks for the top 6 Percy J. Billinghurst illustrations.

6.) The Fox and the Turkeys (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): One thing that is remarkable about Billinghurst's work is that he subtly endows his animals with personality and character. When we see this drawing, we can get a sense of what's going on, even if we haven't read the fable. It looks to me like the fox is trying to get the turkeys (presumably to eat) and the turkeys are not making it easy for him to do so. Yet he doesn't exaggerate the animals' attitudes and expressions either. Steering clear of cartoon-like expressions while still hinting at the attitudes and motives of his non-human characters is what gives his drawings such uncommon charm.

5.) The Animals Sick of the Plague (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): Besides his subtle depictions of expressions on animals, (of which we see a lot here,) the appeal of Billinghurst's art is also in his intricate line work. If you look at the tiles on the floor, you'll notice the dark tiles are shaded with a painstakingly precise horizontal crosshatch pattern. The same is true of the wallpaper on either side of the lion. Notice how the horizontal stripes are shaded with vertical hatch lines and the vertical stripes are shaded with horizontal hatch lines. Also, we can't forget the detail that abounds in this image all the way around. From the fur on the animals to the intricate patterns on the lion's throne, each element is precisely rendered with the tiniest of details.

4.) The Fool Who Sold His Wisdom (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): And now we see his skill in dealing with human subjects. The man in the foreground at bottom right appears to be saying "look what an idiot that guy is," while the man he's pointing at looks like he's trying very hard (but unsuccessfully) to hide his foolishness. Everyone else looks on as if to say "You've gotta be kidding me!" whereas others look like they're having conversations of their own without paying any attention to the one who's making a complete fool of himself. All this is very clearly conveyed by gestures and facial expressions that would look contrived if attempted on his animal subjects. Much of Billinghurst's charm lies in his sense of realism, which would be lost if he humanized his animals too much.

3.) The Head and the Tail of the Serpent (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): At first glance, this image doesn't look like it's as intricate as some of the others we just saw, but appearances deceive. The background, as well as some of the larger spots on the serpent's body, are all solid black, which is easy enough to replicate. Just get a brush and slather the paper with ink. Easy peasy, right? But what about the scales on the serpent's skin, and also the shading on its rattle? Even in images that look simple, there's always a place for the intricate line work for which he's so well known. Otherwise, he wouldn't be Percy J. Billinghurst!

2.) The Wolf, the Goat, and the Kid (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): What's particularly impressive about this image won't be clear until you know the fable it's depicting. The mother goat leaves her kid at home (I think, in this case, we can liberally use the term to mean child as well as baby goat, although La Fontaine probably intended to use the latter definition,) and she warns her to not let anyone into the enclosure unless they give the secret passcode, "Deuce take the wolf and all his race!" The wolf slips nearby and overhears it. When the mother's gone, the wolf comes back and uses the passcode, but the kid does the smart thing, asking him to "Show me white paw before you ask me to undo the door." The wolf doesn't have white paws, so he leaves the kid alone. In this case, the moral of the story is that it's always best to be thorough, just in case something isn't what you think it is.

When I first saw this image, all I noticed was the goat and the kid. After I shared it to social media, I got all kinds of comments about the wolf (which they apparently spotted right away,) such as "That is one creepy wolf!" and "This would make a great death metal album cover!" Then I took another look, and I saw the wolf they were referring to. Billinghurst deliberately camouflages the wolf among the bushes so that you almost can't even tell it's there, and he does this because he wants you to get a sense of the complacency that the goat and the kid are feeling at that moment in the story. If you look more closely, you see the wolf, and then you know the danger they're in. This kind of visual storytelling demands a more deliberate and masterful thought process, and in this image, Billinghurst clearly shows his understanding that graphic art is 1% execution, and 99% contemplation.

1.) The Heron (From A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine): This image is the one that (almost) went viral on social media on that fateful day in November of 2018, and it's easy to see why. Rather than simply drawing the heron, Billinghurst decided to zero in on it by creative and deliberate use of framing. The two fish at either side of the border, as well as the snail crawling along on top of it, draw our eye to the center of the image, where we see the majestic heron. And, of course, we see the delicate line work that gives his work such wide appeal.

Do you agree with this list? What other Billinghurst illustrations do you like? Please let me know in the comments section below. I look forward to our chat.

Till next time!

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