What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator? There must be one, because practitioners classify themselves in one category or the other. Of course there are artists who couldn’t illustrate (a book, let’s say) to save their lives, and illustrators whose work will never be called art. But in the middle ground there seem to me to be fine artists who are classified as ‘mere’ illustrators, suggesting that their calling is in some way inferior. So what is the difference, and which artist (or illustrator) am I thinking of?
I love the work of Stanley (‘S.R.’) Badmin. He portrayed the English countryside in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s with a precision and sympathy that made him, in the best sense, popular. In the days of their enlightenment Shell commissioned him to illustrate their marvellous county guides. Many of us learned to see the country through his eyes: particularly the trees. Has anyone understood
and recorded the tracery of winter trees, or placed them in context, with such skill?
Does this make him a great artist? The orthodoxy of today insists that an artist should trouble us, excite our consciousness about something beyond mere appreciation of the physical world, or at least make us aware of that old standby the human condition. Art, as now defined, must induce strong reactions. Any reaction will do, including disgust. Nor does the medium matter: light bulbs are fine; so are turds. Motive, in other words, outweighs competency – by such a margin that mere skill with materials is counted against the protagonist.
There must, therefore, be a new category for people who represent what they observe with skill, care, even inspiration – but don’t have pretensions to deeper, or less coherent, meaning. Disturbing their viewers is not their intention. Perhaps illustrators is the term for them. And for great ‘illustrators’, whose work is beyond mere competence, who are excited or inspired to dare to go further and find or create new convergences of ideas? We used to say ‘artists’.
Does this cover it? Illustration stops at a safe point, within our expectations and comprehension. Art finds another dimension expressible only in the meeting of the medium and the subject. When S.R. Badmin drew a tree he gave his pencil his understanding of growth. What David Hockney does is not categorically different.