To celebrate the recent arrival of Harold Jones's original illustrations for the classic volume of nursery rhymes, Lavender's Blue (1954), here is a special blog post all about the life and work of Harold Jones.

A chest painted by Harold Jones in his South London home

Harold Jones

Harold Jones (1904-1992) was a painter, wood engraver and printmaker, widely known as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and original illustrators of books for children. He began his career in the 1930s as a freelance illustrator and cover illustrator adding his distinctive style to many children’s books, including M. E. Atkinson’s Lockett series. Jones’s first picture book was a collaboration with the renowned children’s poet, Walter de la Mare which resulted in This Year, Next Year (1937). From then, until his death, Jones’s output was prolific and his idiosyncratic style remains instantly recognisable. His most notable and critically acclaimed work was, and remains, Lavender’s Blue (1954).

Artwork for This Year Next Year (1937), illustrated by Harold Jones, written by Walter De La Mare (Seven Stories Collection)

Ever since his early career Jones has won acclaim for his unique, seemingly simplistic, though haunting illustrations. His lithographs for This Year, Next Year marked him out as a fresh talent; the book itself received wide critical acclaim and was included in the First Editions Club’s annual exhibition of “the fifty books of the year”. Children’s book critic for The Times, Brian Alderson describes Jones as “the most original illustrator of the period” adding of Jones’s style:

‘On the surface… there seems to be only a rather stylised, rather wooden, rather traditional pictorialism. But within the hatched, pastel-shaded frames of his pictures there lurks a silent, eerie world – glimpsed or hinted at under the dark arches of the Serpentine bridge, in the eyes of a pensive dog, or behind a half opened door.’  (1)

Harold Jones had a broad range of artistic training before embarking on a career as an illustrator. He began with evening classes at Goldsmith’s College before moving on to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied under Albert Rutherston. He later studied at Royal College under Rutherston’s brother, William Rothenstein, and Arthur Rackham’s teacher, Edward Sullivan. Following his training Jones went on to teach. In 1930 he took a job as an art master at Bermondsey Central School for Boys. However, he quit the job in 1934 as it provided little outlet for his creativity. After leaving Bermondsey, Jones pursued work as a freelance illustrator whilst continuing to work as an art teacher. Between 1937 and 1940 he worked as a visiting lecturer at both the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and the Chelsea School of Art. He also enjoyed a steady income from his work as a freelance illustrator; among other commissions, he illustrated the last three books written by H. G. Wells.

Some of the books illustrated by Harold Jones

During the Second World War, Jones worked for the Royal Engineers as a lithographic draughtsman. He ‘spent his days in a disused Pimlico garage drawing maps for the Supreme headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He used to recall how he had “the great fortune to draw the D-Day maps. We knew about everything months before the generals.”’ (2)

In 1945 Jones resumed teaching, taking up a post at Sunningdale School of Ballet, and continued to take commissions as an illustrator. The publication of Lavender’s Blue in 1954, and its wide and substantial critical acclaim, cemented his place as one of the foremost illustrators in Britain. In the proceeding decades he illustrated numerous picture books by various authors – generally favouring traditional, biblical and folkloric tales over more modern stories. In 1961 Jones gained further recognition when he was hired to illustrate the first children’s book published by the major British publishing house, Gollanzc: a new edition of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Throughout his career he also wrote and illustrated a number of his own stories including The Visit to the Farm (1939) and Enchanted Night (1947).

Harold Jones's studio at his South London home

Though foremost an illustrator, throughout his life Jones also continued to pursue an interest in fine art, producing a number of paintings. Both his art and his illustration have had significant appeal far beyond the world of children’s books, and the decorative and artistic merits of Jones’s work have been widely acclaimed:

His drawings function at a high level both spatially and decoratively, and at their best possess a quality of stillness and timelessness reminiscent of Italian quattrocento painting.’ (3)

While still a student, he sold his first picture in a Royal College of Art student exhibition to the influential art patron, Lady Ottoline Morrell. His work has been exhibited at venues including the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy. Tate owns Jones’s early work ‘The black door’ which it purchased in 1940 and work by Jones featured in The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture (Chamot, Farr and Butlin, 1964).

About Lavender's Blue

Copy of Lavender's Blue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954) compiled by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones

Upon its release, Lavender’s Blue won substantial critical acclaim and its publication can be seen as something of a landmark in the history of children’s illustration. It received an honourable mention by the Hans Christian Andersen Award (this award remains the highest international recognition given to an author or illustrator of children’s books) and Jones was given a ‘special commendation’ by the British Library Association at the awarding of that year’s prestigious Carnegie Award. Though members of the Carnegie selection committee had for some time planned to introduce a separate illustration award, at this time there was still no major award honouring illustrators. However, it was decided that, due to the quality and originality of Jones’s illustrations, Lavender’s Blue deserved a high commendation and it is generally regarded that, had events ‘moved more quickly, [Jones] would have been the first recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal’ – the illustration companion to the Carnegie award, introduced in 1956 (4). Since its establishment, the Kate Greenaway Medal (the first winner of which was Edward Ardizzone in 1956) has remained by far the most coveted award for illustration in Britain. On its release in the United States Lavender’s Blue was also met with strong critical praise. It received the American Library Association Award, and was included on the list of winners of the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (5).

Artwork by Harold Jones for Lavender's Blue (1954)

First published by Oxford University Press in 1954, Lavender’s Blue is by far the most noted and celebrated of Harold Jones works. The book’s illustrations epitomise the seemingly bright and innocent, though slightly eerie style that sets Jones work apart. Each picture offers a world to explore full of rich depth and detail. As The Times Literary Supplement said of Jones at the time:

Among artists who specialise in books for children, Harold Jones is pre-eminent. Since Jean de Brunhoff’s incomparable Babar series, no artist has understood more successfully than he that a picture has little meaning for a child if he cannot step inside it.(6)

Lavender’s Bluewas compiled by the noted librarian, critic and editor, Kathleen Lines who brought to the project her considerable knowledge and expertise on children’s literature. Lines had previously won acclaim for her critical survey of children's books, Four to Fifteen (1950) (also illustrated by Jones). Through her series of Fairytale Picture Books produced throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Lines would later go on to work with some of the leading children’s illustrators including Edward Ardizzone. TheTimes Literary Supplement noted of Kathleen Lines’s compilation of Lavender’s Blue that: ‘…as could be expected of someone so knowledgeable in the field of children’s books, [Kathleen Lines] has done her part with great thoroughness. No traditional favourite seems to be missing and sticklers can be sure, too, of finding the traditional verses.’ (7)

The Kathleen Lines book collection here at Seven Stories includes many of the books Lines used to research rhymes for Lavender's Blue

Throughout its 60 years, Lavender’s Blue has remained with Oxford University Press and enjoys the distinction of never once having been out of print. Rather uniquely, although the printing quality has varied, Jones’s original design of the book has never been substantially altered. In 2004, a special 50th anniversary edition was published which saw the book and its illustrations restored to their original quality.

Lavender’s Blue is still regarded as a classic by many children’s authors and illustrators working today. Former Children’s Laureate and author, Jacqueline Wilson, lists the book in her top ten all time children’s books. Of the illustrations, she has said: “[Harold Jones] uses a wonderful delicate colour palette of blue, sage green, lilac and apricot to create his own quirkily detailed dream-like world. You could pore over the pages every day for a year and still find fresh delights.” (8) The well renowned illustrator and author, Ian Beck, regularly cites Harold Jones as one of his foremost influences. He describes Jones illustrations as: “…never fail[ing] to delight. Even when tackling a simple line drawing of a water pump something delectable emerges. He would be my choice of desert island illustrator, even above Ardizzone.” (9)

The fantastic collection of artwork for Lavender's Blue came to Seven Stories in August to join our already significant collection of Jones's original illustrations. The purchase was made possible thanks to grants from ArtFund ( and the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund (
Harold Jones's Lavender's Blue illustrations will soon be available to view by appointment at the Seven Stories Collections Department. The work will also be featuring in future exhibitions at the Seven Stories Visitor Centre. If you'd like to know more about the Harold Jones Archive or work by other illustrators in the Seven Stories Collection then contact us.

Notes and references from the text:

1) Alderson, B., ‘Some notes on children’s book illustration 1915-1985’, in Horne, A. (ed), The Dictionary of 20th Century British Book Illustrators (Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1994)

2) Harold Jones’s obituary, The Daily Telegraph (London, England), 13th June 1992

3) Peppin, B. (ed) and Micklethwaite, L. (ed), Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: twentieth century, (London: John Murray Publishers, Ltd., 1984)

4) Barker, Keith, In the Realms of Gold: the story of the Carnegie Medal, (London: Julia MacRae Books, 1986)

5) The Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1958-1979) was an annual American literary award granted by the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education to books deemed to "belong on the same shelf" as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

6) Serraillier, Ian, ‘Pen, Brush and Pencil’, Times Literary Supplement, (London, England), 19th November, 1954

7) Dowding, K. M., ‘Rhymes and jingles’, Times Literary Supplement, (London, England), 19th November, 1954

8) Wilson, Jacqueline, ‘The great books giveaway’, The Guardian, (London: England), 4th March, 2011

9) ‘Harold Jones’ on Ian Beck’s blog – (accessed 4th June 2014)