IT evokes a timeless and charming picture of Edinburgh. Now, 50 years after its publication, a celebrated children’s travel guide to the capital is being reissued, writes Martyn McLaughlin
THE turrets and tenements have changed not a jot, the bustle of buses and cars continues to roar past, and five decades on, the fierce, biting wind has lost none of its chill. For children of a certain age, the illustrations of Miroslav Sasek offered a charming and evocative panaroma of Scotland’s capital city. From the grandeur of Castle Esplanade to the wynds of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s character was captured for posterity by the Czech artist as part of a series of travel guides revered the world over by youngsters growing up in the 1960s.
Now, more than half century after its publication, Sasek’s acclaimed intepretation of the city is being reissued for new generations of children and adults alike to cherish. Released in 1961, This is Edinburgh won the hearts of readers for its handsome, sharply-observed view of the capital’s streetscapes and the people who inhabit them, spanning well-kent landmarks such as St Giles’ Cathedral and The Palace of Holyroodhouse, but also keen observations of ordinary life.
The 2012 edition, which reproduces Sasek’s playful ink and gouache illustrations, reveals little has changed, excluding, perhaps, the current chaos which reigns in Princes Street. The work garnered critical acclaim, and even today, continues to inspire those of an artistic bent who live in Edinburgh.
“Sasek’s work is quirky but not cloying, and it has a real edge to it,” says Iain McIntosh. “There is a commercial aspect to his illustrations and a user-friendliness, because I defy anyone not to like it. But at the same time, it’s not crass.”
McIntosh – an acclaimed illustrator, responsible for the much-loved designs in the books of Alexander McCall Smith – recalls being turned on to Sasek’s style at an early age.
“There’s a liveliness about his ideas, there are lots of little self-contained scenarios, which are almost jokes,” he says. “One of my favourite illustrations in the book is that of the Waverley Steps, with this fantastic diagonal figure being rushed upwards by the wind. “The house I grew up in had a copy of the book and I was brought up with it. It’s still always to hand in my house now and it’s always there on the shelf waiting to be opened.”
Born in Prague in 1916, Sasek trained as a painter at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but left in 1948 when the Parti Communiste Français achieved power. He moved to Germany, settling into a career as a graphic designer and radio announcer, but on holiday back in the French capital in the 1950s, he created a number of illustrations of well-known sites, such as the Étoile metro station.
The drawings would blossom into a fully fledged idea and, in 1958, he began his This Is… series, with the debut title focusing on Paris. There quickly followed a series of guides to other major European destinations, including London, Venice, Rome, and Munich, where he lived. His mission to recreate the streetscapes of the world’s major urban centres also took him to the US, where he worked on a further five titles, and he went to illustrate the scenery of farther-flung cities and nations. The series took him as far afield as Texas and Israel, producing images of everything from cats dozing in the windows of Parisian shops to multicoloured laundry drying on bamboo poles above the streets of Hong Kong. In all, he produced 18 books between 1959 and 1974.
Though he toured the globe, Sasek regarded his eight-week visit to Edinburgh, and the resultant book influenced by his time in the city, as particularly special, describing it as one of his three favourite works, alongside guides to Venice and Hong Kong.
“I loved working on This is Edinburgh, though I hated the weather there,” he said. “In the middle of summer, it was cold and rainy, and you needed a hot-water bottle in bed with you. Working conditions were good, though, because the nights are very short in Edinburgh. I worked from 4am to midnight and finished the book in two months.”
Critics, recognising Sasek’s audience was not confined to children, agreed that the Edinburgh book was a fine publication. Writing in the New Statesman on 5 May, 1961, reviewer Karl Miller noted: “The wind and weather, and the stone (both sorts of Edinburgh rock are included) are commemorated in a sheaf of wry and amiable pictures which have all the right greys and angularities.
“The sketch of Jenners Store, flanked by one of Princes Street’s abundant commissionaires, is a piece of architectural satire not unworthy of the doyens, Saul Steinberg and Osbert Lancaster. He is not afraid to follow out his jokes and fantasies: the tartan tripes of the bagpipes are hung about his pages to great effect.”
Similarly, The Times Literary Supplement, in a review published the same month, hailed Sasek’s powers of observation, pointing out how “he has found much to love in Auld Reekie, particularly the incongruities, social, and architectural. There is some very lovely drawing, particularly of the Edinburgh skyline, a sharply humorous enjoyment of folly, and an occasional neatness of phrase.”
Years later, there remains a warm affection among the artistic community for Sasek, who died aged just 63 in 1980. David Robinson, The Scotsman’s literary editor, praised his desire to present the unseen Edinburgh before the world’s children.
He says: “Sasek’s illustration has a charm all of its own, and his book on Edinburgh is an absolute treat. One of the things I love about it is that he doesn’t just confine himself to the stock postcard images of the city. Instead, he goes out and finds out new images for himself – of the Dean Bridge, say, Dean village, or Newhaven.
“One of my favourites is of the man being blown, almost like a rocket, by the cold wind that whistles up Waverley Steps: again, a classic example of an outsider highlighting something that any resident of the city knows to be true but might not have seen anyone illustrate before.
“Sometimes it seems as though it takes a foreign artist to remind us of how Edinburgh is such a sensationally dramatic city. Think, for example, of what Sylvain Chomet made of the views from Arthur’s Seat in his film The Illusionist. Without exaggerating quite as much, Sasek makes precisely the same point. It is a beautiful book about a city whose beauty those of us who live in Edinburgh all too easily forget – I’d happily recommend it, not just as a children’s book but to anyone who loves Edinburgh too.”
McIntosh agrees: “He manages to get right down to the core and essence of the city. Looking through the book, it’s so recognisable of Edinburgh even 50 years later. You’d only have to change a couple of things. He has great observational skills and that comes across in the book, he clearly wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere.
“The aesthetic of his illustrating style is very current at the moment. It looks very fresh at the moment and although it may have seemed dated in the 1980s, it’s fit for modern tastes.”
• This is Edinburgh by Miroslav Sasek is published by Universe Publishing, and is available in Britain through Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
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