Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Ernest A Aris, Illustrator 1882 - 1963

Ernest was born in Islington, London on 22 April 1882. His brother Albert was born a year later. Their parents moved to Bradford where Ernest attended the Technical College and School of Art, and earned his diploma under the tutorship of Charles Stephenson. Later at the Royal College of Art in London he studied under Moira and Chambers.

He began his career as a portrait artist and an art teacher, subsequently writing and illustrating children's books. He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym 'Robin A Hood'. He also illustrated seaside postcards using the signature 'EARIS'.  In the 1930's lead figures of domestic and zoo animals were given away with tins of Cadburys Cocoa. The range was gradually extended from an initial release of 15 models to a total of 32, and today, as in the years from 1934 to 1939 they are highly collectable. These brightly clad, hand made and hand painted characters soon captured the imagination of children young and old and as a sales promotion exercise it was a huge success for Cadbury Ltd. It was just as successful for the toy manufacturers William Britain Ltd whose production lines were maintained at full capacity.

As part of the sales promotion cartoon characters featuring the Cococubs adventures appeared in numerous national newspapers, as well as children's and family magazines. The Cococubs were launched quietly onto the unsuspecting world on 26 September 1934 in a small advertisement.

The interesting part form a Ladybird book collector's point of view is that one of the Cococub characters turns out to be none other than Tasseltip from Tasseltip tales by Dorothy Richards. Ernest illustrated over 400 books and wrote and illustrated some 170 children's stories. The majority of his stories were about Wee Woodland Folk, mainly friendly and mischievous anthropomorphic creatures. The tales were not brilliant but the illustrations were inspired. Beatrix Potter recognised this and at a time when her eyesight was failing she commissioned Ernest to do half a dozen illustrations for her. Ernest subsequently made the mistake of calling one of his bunnies 'Peter' and with accusations of plagiarism the two fell out. This was unfair as Ernest had always drawn rabbits and his younger version of Tasseltip, Wee Benjy Brown, was created some 95 years ago. He had a variety of incarnations and a like all bunnies a prolific family.

Ernest's book 'Billie Rabbit' appeared in 1912 and it was from this character that Tasseltip began to evolve. He later appeared in a variety of books from 1916 as, Wee Benjy Brown, Benjy Bunkin, Bunkum Brown, Bunnikin Brighteyes, Bunnikin Brown as well as just plain Bunnikin and so the list goes on. Ernest brought a whole host of his Woodland Folk together in The Browns of Brambledown which featured the Brown family and their four mischievous mites. Their playmates included Mole, Toad, Hedgehog, Squirrels, Robins and Wrens.
The first Tasseltip stories were published at the same time (1947) and it is not surprising that in the drawings all the animals are almost identical but what is more than co-incidence is the similarity in the choice of Woodland Folk. Dorothy Richards and Ernest must have collaborated closely.

He was a popular and humorous chap and often had lunch with authors for whom he illustrated books. Even Beatrix Potter found him 'amusing'. The Browns of Brambledown was republished in 1989 in the Brambledown series as The Rabbits New Home and whilst the story is different the illustrations are the same.

When the six Tasseltip books were re-issued by Ladybird in 1975 they were re-written and re-titled by Sarah Cotton. An illustrator, Roy Smith, was commissioned to 'refresh' the original Aris illustrations. In A Little Silk Apron the patch on Tasseltip's trousers appears on different legs in different pictures; this is changed in the re-printed version Tasseltip Buys a Present. Generally however the central character of the picture remains unchanged but subtle and quite unnecessary changes have been made to the backgrounds.

Aris has been described as an "expert in child psychology" who believed that "the text is an excuse for the pictures". He regularly used a ploy such as moving the patch about to catch the child's interest and to sustain their attention - to 'correct' this is to miss the point entirely. Comparison reveals that the colour of the clothes is often identical for the Cococubs and the characters in the Tasseltip stories. Tasseltip also appears as Frisky in a set of Cigarette cards issued by Churchman's in 1926.
Tasseltip can then be traced back to Benjamin Buntie Bertie Brown, or to use his popular name Benjy Brown, "a bold bad bunny full of mischief, the son of Widow Bunnikin. "

To my mind Ernest's creatures belong in a time that was once real but which becomes less tangible as we grow older.  I think of them in the Cotswold village of Slad, immortalised as the home of English poet, Laurie Lee, where "Our grandmothers wore high laced boots and long muslin dresses, beaded chokers and candlewick shawls, crowned by tall poke bonnets tied with trailing ribbons".

© Dudley Chignall. Not to be reproduced in whole or in part without the author's permission. 

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