Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ernest Aris

(* Back in March, whilst writing about Philip Mendoza, I mentioned that Mendoza's artwork seemed to owe something to the robust animal artwork of Ernest Aris. I'm pleased to present here a piece about Aris written especially for Bear Alley by Dudley Chignall answering the question: who is (or, rather, who was), Ernest Aris.)

Ernest Aris

Ernest A. Aris (1882–1963) was a talented and prolific illustrator (author & illustrator of some 140 titles – almost all books for children) who possessed a mischievous sense of humour. He was also an unscrupulous opportunist and plagiarist who exploited any opportunity to achieve a commercial advantage.

Unlike many of his contemporaries he does not appear to have been a member of any of the artists clubs or societies such as The London Sketch Club or the Savage Club where his life long pal Charles Bayne was a member. Was he shunned for his opportunism or did his contemporaries see him as a 'hack'. Was The Art of the Pen his way of seeking to place himself more into the world of art and achieving a place too in posterity?

Ernest’s early drawing of animals, and rabbits in particular, were poor in the extreme but he came to develop a flair that achieved him a place in the history of illustration. Where did he draw his inspiration? What remains to be revealed about his relationship with Beatrix Potter? Why did she confide to her publisher that Aris was "an artlessly conceited little bounder?" Whilst he has certainly influenced later illustrators just how much does he owe to his contemporaries? And intriguingly why did he adopt pseudonyms - first of all Robin A. Hood (1916) & shortly after Dan Crow (1917)?

He moved in a circle that included such famous names as John Hassell, Harry Rountree, Cecil Aldin and E. H. Shepard. Rountree and Hassell had been Presidents of the London Sketch Club and both were members of The Savage Club.

At Art School Aris maintained a scrapbook collection on the work of Phil May who he felt "stood supreme, his drawings are in a class by themselves." His influence can be seen in some of his postcards. It is in Aris's early work (1904-1905) as a postcard artist that we see how versatile he was in mimicking the style of other popular postcard artists to produce several series of cards with contrasting artistic styles.

His contemporaries were all established by the time that Ernest came on the scene. Hassell was his senior by some 14 years; Aldin had been born 12 years before Aris whilst Rountree was 4 years older than Ernest. Like Aris, Rountree found strong admirers in the Editors of Little Folk; S. H. Hamer, a predecessor of Ernest's partner Charles Bayne, commissioned him regularly, whilst Bayne employed his skills in 1915 to illustrate a selection of My Book of Best Fairy Tales. These included: The Three Bears; Little Snow-White; Ugly Duckling; Rumplestiltskin; Puss in Boots; Aladdin; Sleeping Beauty; The Emperor's New Clothes; and many more. Ernest would have enjoyed this commission had he not been very busy at that time.

I have long speculated on the extent to which the early illustrators collaborated and shared ideas. Perhaps just as today’s scriptwriters hold closed sessions and bounce ideas around to stimulate creativity so too did the illustrators over a coffee in the offices of the Editor or the publisher. Lilian Amy Govey (1886–1974) was an illustrator who specialised in fairies and children and some of her work shares common elements with that of Ernest. Whilst he published A Bold Bad Bunny she published Bunny the Bold. They both illustrated The House That Jack Built albeit Ernest’s was Jack Rabbit. Both were recognised by Henry Frowde Hodder & Staughton and also Humphrey Milford and both contributed to the Sticks Books; Lilian’s titles being The Acorn Elf and Little Pink Petticoat. Govey’s cute postcards are popular with collectors. The Mice in The Little Mouse Family series published by HFHS bear a resemblance to Ernest's Willie Mouse.

In the above illustration by Rountree the wide-eyed and mischievous Snowballing Bunny has baggy trousers with a patch to the knee; his tail appears seamlessly from the rear (in an age when Velcro had yet to be invented). Whilst the debt owed by Tasseltip (Ladybird Books) and his ancestors to Harry Rountree may be purely co-incidental the similarity cannot be denied.

Ernest Aris gave a lot of pleasure to many families over several generations. Long may he continue to do so.

(* My thanks to Dudley for taking the time to write the above. The images are, from the top, 'Bunnikin Brown' (1909), 'Wee Beny Brown' (1916), both by Aris; the postcard by Harry Rountree was mailed in 1906.)


  1. I'm here in New Zealand on holiday and came across this work of my very talented brother. I just want to say I'm very proud of what he wrote and I learnt a thing or two. Well Done Bro'!
    From Jacky :-)

  2. hi there i have some very rare original photos of ernest aris fishing i also have photos of him and his family. along with these i have a water colour painting sighned ernest aris they are very very rare if anyone is intrested then please email



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