by Margalit Fox)
Erik Blegvad, a prolific children’s book artist renowned for illustrations whose fine-grained propriety could barely conceal the deep subversive wit at their core, died on Jan. 14 in London. He was 90.
His son Peter confirmed the death, which was not widely reported.
A native of Denmark who had long divided his time between London and the United States, Mr. Blegvad was possessed of a style that on its surface was comfortingly Old World: He worked primarily in meticulous pen and ink, with some forays into watercolor.
His illustrations, minutely observed, were characterized by elongated figures that recall the art of Edward Gorey, and by dense crosshatchings that suggest the early Maurice Sendak.
Mr. Blegvad illustrated more than 100 picture books, including many by his wife, the writer and artist Lenore Blegvad. One is “This Little Pig-a-Wig and Other Rhymes About Pigs” (1978), which, with text chosen by Ms. Blegvad, was named one of the best illustrated children’s books of the year by The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Blegvad’s other books include Mary Norton’s “Bed-Knob and Broomstick” (1957; the title is sometimes rendered unhyphenated and both nouns were pluralized in the 1971 Disney screen adaptation), whose cover, featuring a four-poster sailing through the air, is instantly familiar to anyone under 60; “The Gammage Cup” (1959), by Carol Kendall; and “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” (1971), by Judith Viorst.
Throughout his career, Mr. Blegvad saw his role as subservient to the writer’s, and as his many interviews attest, he would not have had it otherwise.
“Illustrating a children’s book gives me a role which seems natural, accompanist rather than soloist,” he wrote in “Self-Portrait” (1979), a short illustrated memoir that is only nominally for children.
His art was no less powerful for that approach. Reviewing Mr. Blegvad’s picture book “Peter and the Troll Baby” (1984; text by Jan Wahl) in The Times Book Review, Joe McGinniss wrote that he “has created the finest, hairiest, scariest trolls I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Blegvad was also noted for illustrating texts by his countrymen, including Hans Christian Andersen and the writer and illustrator N. M. Bodecker, a friend since their art-school days in Copenhagen.
His illustrations for Mr. Bodecker’s posthumous picture book text, “Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear!” (1998), about a harried farm wife who in the course of a single day must “pick the apples,/dill the pickles,” and “chop down the trees for wooden nickels” and do a spate of other essential chores, elicited delighted praise from critics.
The book’s nearly wordless final panel, in which the beleaguered Mary turns the tables on her layabout husband, leaves little doubt as to the anarchic sweep of Mr. Blegvad’s imagination.
Erik Blegvad was born in Copenhagen on March 3, 1923. As a youth, planning a career as an airplane mechanic, he apprenticed in a machine shop. He left the shop after the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, when it began doing work for the Nazis.
Mr. Blegvad, who had always liked to draw, entered the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts. Though he described himself as having been a poor student there, he was allowed to graduate — a function, he later said, of his having spent several days in a Nazi prison for distributing Danish resistance literature.
“There was a rumor that the only reason I graduated was because I had been arrested by the Gestapo and that the school did not want to see somebody who had been arrested also fail his exams,” Mr. Blegvad said in an interview quoted in the reference work Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults.
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After Germany’s defeat, Mr. Blegvad served in what is now the Royal Danish Air Force, later assisting the British as a German-to-English translator in occupied Germany. Afterward, working as a commercial illustrator in Paris, he met Lenore Hochman, an American art student there; they were married from 1950 until her death in 2008.
Mr. Blegvad, who moved with his wife to the United States in 1951 and contributed illustrations to American magazines, maintained a home in West Wardsboro, Vt., for many years.
Besides his son Peter, a songwriter, singer and cartoonist, Mr. Blegvad is survived by his son Kristoffer and four grandchildren.
His other books include “The Great Hamster Hunt” (1969), with text by Ms. Blegvad; “The Complete Book of Dragons” (1973), by E. Nesbit; and two cookbooks, “The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook” (1963), in which the featured items are meant to be eaten, and Marjorie Winslow’s “Mud Pies and Other Recipes” (1961), in which they are not.
Mr. Blegvad’s puckish humor once got the better of him. At midcentury, supplying an illustration to Esquire, he drew, as requested, a naval scene. He also drew, far in the background, a ship with tiny semaphore flags spelling out an unprintable two-word phrase.
At least one reader was schooled in semaphore, and that spelled the end of Mr. Blegvad’s work for Esquire.