By Stephen James Walker
Published by Telos
Given the all-ages appeal of downthetubes, how best to review The Art of Reginald Heade?
This artist’s impossible women with their hourglass figures and dresses so flimsy that they defy disbelief should be well-known to all fans of British illustration. Yet, while his illustrations are well-known, the man himself is much less well-known and his work has seldom been collected together like this. Certainly never before in a collection of this nature, although the Hank Janson website set up by Allan Tagg, later run by Steve Holland of Bear Alley fame, made a digital attempt to do so.
This book is not quite a catalogue raisonne of Heade’s work but it come very close and is a clear labour of love for author Stephen James Walker.
While the book can’t reveal that much about Heade (not even a photo of him, which is not surprising given how hard it has been for anyone to find out more about him in the past), the breadth of Heade’s work in the children’s market, and especially his work in comics, was a revelation to me and I imagine will be for many others. His work illustrating pre-and post-war childrens fiction by the likes of Elsie J Oxenham, WE Johns (Worrals covers rather than Biggles) and Anthony Buckeridge was so a complete surprise. As too were the fairy tale volumes, where he not only provided the cover but many beautiful interior images as well.
Heade (1901-57) was only 56 when he died and his career was bookended with work on magazines and comics. His early art appeared on the cover of Britannia and Eve magazine and then at the very end of his career as Heade (his work would later be presented under the much less sensational moniker of Cy Webb) he provided covers for the Amalgamated Press Thriller Comics library and Sexton Blake library.
Others provided the interior art for these stories but, as Stephen James Walker himself revealed for us a while back, giving downthetubes readers a fascinating insight into Heade’s comics career, he also drew black and white illustrations for some stories in Knockout comic, the Comet and Playhour. Typically, these took the form of eight two-page episodes.
Included in the book are comic pages that more than demonstrate Heade’s versatility as an artist. “When Knights were Bold” wouldn’t look out of place in a book of fairy tales, whereas his “Sexton Blake” pages are much more in the the all-actions-fists swinging-fast-car-driving-crooks-escaping style that epitomised Blake.
In terms of Heade’s pin-up art, this book is a gold-mine (most of which are very high quality – and even those that aren’t can largely be excused on the grounds that even though published 60-70 years ago the publishers and paper-stock are flimsy to say the least). The content should have collectors everywhere delighted by the inclusion of so many rare images.
For £26.99 you get nearly 170 pages of hardback book, in full colour, with rare images throughout. The Art of Reginald Heade is a reference book to be savoured and it deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in British illustrators.
• In August 2018, Telos Publishing released an expanded edition of this book, with many more book covers. The Art of Reginald Heade Special Edition runs to a whopping 318 pages, a deluxe special edition of the book that has been extensively revised and greatly expanded. With almost double the page-count of the standard edition, it features over 400 additional, ultra-rare Heade artwork images, and presents many others in larger size than before. Priced £50, it’s available from the publisher or via Amazon
Richard Sheaf is a longtime contributor to downthetubes and has written for numerous magazines about British comics.