Paxton Chadwick

Paxton Chadwick

Geoff Waring on Paxton Chadwick, a hero of illustration

I first discovered Paxton Chadwick in a secondhand bookshop in Cirencester well over 20 years ago. There I chanced upon a copy of his 1958 Picture Penguin book Pond Life. At £5 for a slim, floppy staple-bound paperback, it seemed pretty expensive, but I was instantly hooked. This little book perfectly expressed my own childlike wonder about wildlife, full of the most exquisite lithographs.

Chadwick is a genius draftsman, for me as good in the field of illustration as Picasso was to fine art. His subject matter may be more prosaic – the life cycle of a toad or the birdlife you might find near water – but his work is anything but.

Chadwick hailed from Manchester but lived in Leiston, Suffolk, and often taught art at the nearby left-leaning alternative school, Summerhill – there's even a road named after him there; Paxton Chadwick Close. For a while Leiston was known as ‘Moscow on Sea‘, and Paxton was a prominent member of the thriving Communist party there before and after the war. Uniquely for a generally Conservative county, the Communists held council seats there by working closely with the local Labour Party, and Chadwick briefly served as the council chairman.

He supplemented his teaching work by illustrating and writing books for Penguin and later Cassell, drawing (literally) on his expert knowledge of the natural world to produce highly detailed and accurate studies of British flora and fauna.

For many years I only had my one prized copy of Pond Life. Though I spent many hours searching in dusty secondhand bookshops, I never found any more. Thanks to the internet, I've now collected pretty much his whole output. The Pantoscope Series for Cassell in particular show off his skills as a designer with their masterly use of composition. His beautiful fold-out panoramas of everything from fungi to seashore birds, woodland butterflies to flowers of the cornfield fit up to 20 or more species of animals, plants and birds into a space just 8 inches by 20.

Paxton Chadwick died in 1961 but his illustrations will resonate with generations of schoolchildren whose classrooms were decorated with his work.   

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