Eva Billow was one of the most influential picture book artists of the 1940s and 1950s. Her extensive output for children reveals her desire to explore the aesthetics of the picture book with a modernist spirit.
Eva Billow was born in Övre Ullered in Värmland in 1902. She was the third and youngest child in her family. Her father was a factory owner and an agronomist while her mother was the daughter of a clergyman. On completing her education at the Risberg school in Örebro the then 18-year-old Eva Billow applied to Tekniska skolan in Stockholm in order to train as a drawing instructor and an advertising artist. She worked as a printing and calligraphy instructor at Tekniska skolan, or Konstfackskolan as it later became known, for over 40 years, from 1925 to 1968.
Eva Billow’s career as an illustrator began in 1925 when she began to draw a cartoon called “Kajsa och Snurran” for Svenska Journalen. In 1929 the cartoon was published in book format, as Kajsa och Snurran. En bilderbok med vers för snälla barn. Modernist elements can already be detected in the ensuing books, Resan till Stockholm, 1933, and Lille Truls äventyr i skogen, 1934, which comprise a matter-of-fact and classical 1920s idiom and a range of clearly modern cues both in terms of themes and style. The formalizing and austerity that Eva Billow was seeking in her earlier books and cartoons was finally achieved during the second half of the 1940s, just as Swedish children’s literature entered a powerful and innovative phase.
Eva Billow’s most productive and creative period of output began at the end of the 1940s. In the space of just ten years she illustrated ten of her own picture books. Her breakthrough came with the picture book Pojkarna Igelkotts vinterskor, 1948, in which she also finally found and rounded off her own style. In this humorous tale about a hedgehog family the focused approach mirrors the content: all the characters are small animals, birds, and insects. Eva Billow’s experience with cartoon drawing and working with reduced use of shapes and characters can be seen as the probable background to the picture books’ confident and effective form of expression. The interplay between form and content also accorded with the functionalist ideas of contemporary design. Her next books included När John Blund försov sig, 1949, and Nickes lediga dag, 1950. Her themes are playful and everyday and expressed in rhymes about clever thoughts and questions. Pondering on everyday matters and turning things upside down in a reversed perspective serve as a starting point for the poems in Godmorgon och godnatt, 1951.
Eva Billow’s picture books can easily be recognised by their unifying aesthetic which is thorough to the smallest detail – thoughts of austerity, simplicity, and interplay between form and content. Her books can be seen as part of the vital period of Swedish children’s literature when modern and high quality children’s literature was in demand and the picture book was often considered to be part of the modern book world. Only one of Eva Billow’s poetry collections is narrated in the first person and that is Jag tycker mest om plättar, 1953, in which she uses the child’s perspective in order to generate immediacy and comedy. Många gratulationer på födelsedagen, 1952, Hittar du till smultronstället?, 1954, Timbambimhuset, 1955, and Ta av dig mössan, Mårten!, 1957, are all based in children’s home environment and neighbourhood, regardless of whether the main characters are animals or humans. In her slightly larger formatted poetry book called Filippa Hallondoft, 1960, Eva Billow leaves the realistic everyday accounts behind and replaces them with mythical figures and a series of anthropomorphised natural phenomena such as raindrop boys or an entire cloud family.
Eva Billow married Anders Billow in 1939. He was a book artist and a designer. The couple shared a burning interest in book art and mutual appreciation of graphic form which naturally facilitated their collaboration. They worked together for almost two decades, producing illustrations, bindings, book products and publications, often at Nordisk Rotogravyr, where Anders Billow was head of the artistic section. The printing works, founded by Simon Söderstam, was known for its advanced intaglio technique and innovative graphic design and book art. Eva Billow also illustrated primers, created a series of book bindings, and a variety of printed matter for the likes of the Kooperativa Förbund, and also illustrated Astrid Lindgren’s short story collection Nils Karlsson-Pyssling, 1949. Her book designs are recognisable due to her graphic awareness and many of her books use calligraphic text. She also completed pure calligraphy projects, such as the Swedish edition of Edith Holden’s Naturdagbok av en engelsk dam året 1906, 1978.
Throughout her long career Eva Billow worked with styles and techniques which not only formed part of but also changed the traditions of picture books and book production. Svensk Bokkonst rewarded her efforts several times by selecting her books as Årets utvalda böcker (book of the year) in 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1950.
Eva Billow died in 1993, aged 91.