For ever young

Reputations - William Cook celebrates a jobbing genius who elevated children's illustration into art

This month, a new exhibition celebrates the enchanting legacy of one of the best - and best-loved - British artists of the last century. But this charming retrospective isn't in a gallery - it's in a bookshop, which is apt, because although some of his elegant, arresting pictures have ended up in museums such as the Tate, the Royal Academy and the V&A, Edward Ardizzone was above all a wonderful illustrator, who elevated this modest, neglected and often unfairly maligned craft to the status of high art.

Like a good actor, every good illustrator inhabits the imagination of many authors. Yet Ardizzone also created an imaginative universe of his own. He illustrated the classics (Dickens, Thackeray, even Shakespeare), but he's best remembered for his children's stories, especially his exquisite Tim books - the nautical adventures for children (of all ages), which he wrote, and drew. Recently republished by Scholastic, these affectionate and thrilling tales are a fitting testament to his delicate, dynamic talent. Tim was just one aspect of his work. This unassuming storyteller's career ranged from advertising to autobiography. With drawings and lithographs, plus 100 first editions, this exhibition shows that Ardizzone's vision was universal and unique.

Ardizzone's children's books are sophisticated yet instantly accessible. He never patronised his juvenile readers, but he's always easy to understand. "They're not drawings for children - they're drawings for people," says his daughter, Christianna Clemence. "He certainly didn't draw down to children at all," agrees his friend and editor, Judy Taylor, whose collection of his drawings, Sketches For Friends, was recently published by John Murray. "Not a lot of children's book illustrators also paint, and exhibit, and are members of the RA." Ardizzone applied the same wit and warmth to all his work - regardless of age. His drunks and prostitutes are drawn with the same tender humour as his children. He can do landscapes (especially seascapes), but his supreme talent lies in understanding people.

A clubbable man, he enjoyed a good pint or a fine bottle of wine. His pictures are similarly sociable, and full of human incident and detail. He was a raconteur, in paint and prose, with a popular showman's sense of fun. Like Hitchcock, he sometimes gave himself walk-on parts in his own creations. "Painters should not be interested in metaphysics," he declared. "Abstract forms, delicious as they may be, are no substitute for the poetic evocation of reality."

Ardizzone was born in 1900, in French Indo-China. His father was Italian, but born in Algeria and raised as a Frenchman. His mother, an amateur artist, was half Scots and half English, and in 1905 she brought him to England, where he lived for the rest of his life. Remarkably, for a woman of her time, she had studied art in Paris. Despite his Italian surname, Ardizzone's art became a celebration of English daily life. Maybe his multinational roots helped to give him that childlike sense of separation, the artistic perspective that only children share. "He's always standing slightly outside things, looking in," says his son, Nicholas Ardizzone. "He really did understand how children thought."

In 1918, the extended family moved into 130 Elgin Avenue, in north-west London, a curiously cosmopolitan enclave on the boundary between smart Maida Vale and rowdy Paddington, where Edward lived and worked until a few years before his death, in 1979. His house is still there, and the nearby pubs where he drank and drew, such as the Warrington and the Prince Alfred, are little changed. His father wouldn't pay for him to go to art school, so for seven years he worked as a clerk for his dad's City firm, doodling on his blotter and studying art at night school, three nights a week for six years.

Ardizzone finally gave up his dull day job in 1927. With a young family to feed, times were hard at first, but his industry and versatility saw him through the Depression. He supplemented his income from exhibitions with dust jackets, plus commissions for firms such as Guinness and Johnny Walker. He also drew for Punch and the Radio Times. He even drew menus, with just as much creativity and loving care. A family man (at first, almost a house husband), he worked at home, with his children all around him, and some of his most beautiful work was completely private - such as his illustrated personal letters and his home- made Christmas cards. His first Tim book, published in 1936, was a huge hit, and in 1939, the director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark (later of Civilisation fame) put Ardizzone's name for-ward as a war artist. His sharp eye, speedy pen and vivid memory made him an inspired choice.

"He adored being a war artist," says his daughter. "And, for the first time ever, he was financially secure." He made more than 400 artworks, most of which are now in the Imperial War Museum. "A maddening war," he wrote, in his Diary of a War Artist, published by the Bodley Head. "Only the dead and dying stay still for you to draw." Yet, although he doesn't flinch from dead bodies and ruined buildings, his humanity endures, in both his drawings and his diaries. It is not just the destruction that he surveys but also the boredom and the bonhomie: ultimately, the heroic survival of ordinary life.

Yet there's also a remarkably timeless quality to his work. "Ardizzone's art stands aloof from what his contemporaries were attempting," wrote his biographer and brother-in-law, Gabriel White. "The movements of the last 50 years passed him by." The Strand magazine likened him to Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, but he's far too kind for outright satire. "He's as acute as Rowlandson, but he lacks the cruelty," says his son. "What he has above all is an incredible sense of the absurd."

After the war, Ardizzone was in great demand, and greatly admired - he was made a CBE in 1971 - but he was always generous with his work (until his seventies, he didn't even have an agent). "There's a long tradition of images associated with the word, like Blake and Beardsley," says Ian Beck, a children's artist and author, and one of the speakers at this exhibition. "It's seen as commercial art or 'mere' illustration, which is wrong." Yet since his death, a generation has grown up starved of narrative art, and his work is becoming increasingly collectable, both at home and abroad. "Ardizzone is an artist I strongly recommend investing in," Leo Harrison, managing director of Biblion, the antiquarian booksellers, told the Guardian. And what would this humble jobbing genius have made of such acclaim? "One paints for artists and simpletons only," claimed Ardizzone, but he actually painted for anyone - and everyone - in between.

The exhibition "Edward Ardizzone" is at Thomas Heneage Art Books, London SW1 (020 8994 9740) from 10-20 March. Sketches for Friends is published by John Murray (£10.99)