Gary Blythe at the Williamson Art Gallery

The Williamson Art Gallery, Slatey Road, Birkenhead
8th March to 4th May 2014

Reviewed by April Cheetham

A Luminous Precision

The art of book illustration inhabits a very particular space of its own; sometimes images decorate and enhance a text, but occasionally they transcend that role and become the word made visual. Currently, the Williamson Art Gallery is showing the work of award-winning, Wirral artist and illustrator, Gary Blythe; an enthralling exhibition that perfectly demonstrates that the art of a successful picture book appeals to all ages.

In 1990, Blythe was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations in The Whales' Song by Dyan Sheldon (see image above). The first part of the exhibition showcases his impressive book illustrations, predominantly oil paintings interspersed with some highly detailed pencil drawings. We step into a quirky dreamscape of keen-eyed, woodland creatures, shadowy staircases and grotesque distortions. Blythe's illustrations are sensitive and poignant, but never sentimental.

The glowing bed-side lamp radiates from Blythe's work, promising the reassurance and comfort of home. Light emanates from familiar domestic settings – the radiant interior of a garden tent; warm light seeping from the overcrowded Nativity inn; the candle-lit roast dinner where a limpid-eyed Beast passes Beauty the gravy boat in a particularly endearing scene. However, there is always the suggestion that perhaps something more menacing lurks in the shadowy margins. The protective light of the hearth is also set against the vastness of star-lit skies and the winged radiance of the angels that scatter terrified shepherds from their flocks.

The dazzling photo-realism of Blythe's portraiture and his accomplished use of chiaroscuro and pointillism make this an exhibition well worth a visit. It is also fascinating to see the differences and shared themes within Blythe's published and better known book illustrations and his private works – an expansive range of distorted figures, intimate portraiture and caricatures. This compelling sample of Blythe's work, produced over a span of thirty-five years, is engaging both in its content and technical accomplishment. An intriguing exhibition not to be missed.

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