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"Toad Reading a Map for Wind in the Willows"
Charles van Sandwyk, "Toad Reading a Map for Wind in the Willows," 2005.
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"Gypsy Caravan for Wind in the Willows"
Charles van Sandwyk, "Gypsy Caravan for Wind in the Willows," 2005.
CHARLES VAN SANDWYK, The Wind in the Willows
Arts on Atlantic Gallery, Calgary
Feb 17 — Mar 31, 2006
By Dina O'Meara
There's something magical about the art of Charles van Sandwyk. His watercolour etchings and fine line drawings appear as if from a different age, one where fairies played hide-and-seek in the back garden, and children listened, hushed and wide-eyed, to tales of voyages to far away tropical isles.
Sketched in loving detail against softly tempered backgrounds, van Sandwyk's fantastical fauna and beribboned birds invite viewers into a gentle world where belief is suspended and renewed. Here, pen in paw, a hedgehog leans up against a scribe's table. There, a swift flies with a lantern in its beak, lighting up the way for a ship full of animals. With old-world charm and a naturalist's precise eye, van Sandwyk's detailed illustrations beckon us into a imaginative world imbued with the innocence and wisdom of nature — and we come out refreshed, smiling at the interlude from modern-day hustle and bustle.
"His whole imagery and sentiment takes one back to a kinder, gentler time," explains Stephen Murphy, director of Arts on Atlantic, the first gallery in Alberta to showcase van Sandwyk's art. "People relate to the innocence of the work, which takes them back to their childhood years. It has some form of attachment people really relate to." Highly selective in where his work is shown, van Sandwyk produces a limited number of watercolours and etchings each year.
The processes used by van Sandwyk are as old fashioned as his art: pen and ink line drawings, watercolours, and hand-pulled etchings. Using a metal scriber on a copper plate, van Sandwyk etches an image by hand, then paints the plate with black ink. After letting the ink seep into the grooves, and wiping off the face of the plate, van Sandwyk uses a 150-year-old Albion hand press to force the ink from the grooves onto sheets of heavy paper. The labour-intensive results reflect a blend of late nineteenth-century precision and romanticism that is part of van Sandwyk's life — and his mystique.
Van Sandwyk grew up in South Africa surrounded by art and nature. He loved reading children's books published in the early 1900s, such as Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit" stories and James Barrie's Peter Pan. Immigrating to Canada with his parents at age 11, he found refuge from the culture shock with fairy tales and fantasy, becoming a devotee of Arthur Rackham, the illustrator of Grimm's Fairy Tales (1900), Alice in Wonderland (1907), and — the book for which Rackham is probably best known — The Wind in the Willows (1938). Almost three decades after becoming a Rackham fan, he was chosen by England's prestigious Folio Society to illustrate a new edition of Kenneth Grahame's classic tale of toads, rats, and badgers. The artwork took more than two years to complete, including the months he spent in England, sketching the countryside and animals. The Wind in the Willows, with illustrations by Charles van Sandwyk, was published in late 2005.
In an artist's statement, van Sandwyk says his "salvation" as a teenager came from his high school art teachers who taught him calligraphy, etching, and printmaking. He found his passion in the art of engraving, and at 16, had his first exhibit at the Joyce Williams Antique Prints and Maps Gallery in Vancouver. Williams and her husband Don Clark became van Sandwyk's representatives and good friends, encouraging him to follow his heart and sharing his vision.
Now 40, van Sandwyk has devoted collectors across North America and Europe, his work is archived by the National Library of Canada, and he has won numerous awards. He has spent the last 20 winters living on a small island in Fiji, where he completes paintings, hand-colours etchings, and handwrites stories. In the spring, he returns to Canada to set up printing at his company, The Fairy Press, and at larger printing houses, overseeing all aspects of production. By fall, he's ready to exhibit individual pieces and his completed publications. His wee books are physically captivating, issued on heavy paper, with elaborate borders and sweet prose handwritten by the artist. To date, Van Sandwyk has illustrated 24 books, 17 of his own, including How to See Fairies, The Pocket Guide to Little People, and Sketches from the Dream Island of Birds.