Illustrating Airfix: Brian Knight

A look at Matt Curtis's amazing archive of model kit art produced by his grandfather.


  • Michael Czerwinski
  • Exhibitions

Over two Saturday afternoons during the run of Ladybird by Design, House of Illustration hosted two informal viewing sessions of an archive of intricate and engaging marketing artwork produced for Airfix, Revell and other model kits.

This body of work by Brian Knight, remarkable for being surprisingly comprehensive as well as exquisitely executed, was brought to us by the artist's grandson Matt Curtis. As a commercial illustrator, Knight had also undertaken commissions to illustrate Ladybird books. With three of these publications featured in the exhibition we were thrilled when Matt took the initiative to get in contact and ask if we would be interested in celebrating his grandfather's other work in some way.

Discussing context is an invaluable method of exploring what an exhibition is actually about. Sharing this archive with our audience offered an insight into working methods and technical processes of commercial illustrators in the 50s and 60s. It broadened our understanding of the breadth of visual language that surrounded those young consumers of Ladybird books. And most powerfully, having an opportunity to closely examine this material helped us gain something of a fuller understanding of the career of a specific illustrator.

Some people came specially. Those who joined the viewing sessions following my regular gallery announcements often expressed excitement at having the unexpected opportunity to view further original artwork that complemented the Ladybird show so well.

Matt supervised the viewings, discussing his grandfather's work with an enthusiastic audience. I also had opportunity to quiz him:

When did you first become aware of your grandfather's archive of artwork, and what's your strongest memory of it?

"At the age of around 10, when I went to see my Gran & Grandad in the New Forest, we’d end up in his studio at the front of the house going through his latest job, by that time freelance commissions rather than the artwork for Airfix - which rarely came down from the roof"

How was it showing this archive at House of Illustration? What was the public response like?

"It was the first time the whole (or as much as we could fit on 8 large tables) collection had been aired in public, and it was great to see the enthusiasm and nostalgia the collection brought back. Chatting to many people about what models they completed and what ones ended up with badly glued propellers."

Matt and I also spoke about the future of this archive and its potential to be eventually reproduced as a publication - which is very exciting.

To conclude, I wish to set a challenge. Matt explained that Brian Knight may have used photographs of movie stars of the time as source material to inform his compositions for military scenes on boxes of model soldiers. How well do you know your 60s male macho movie icons? Take a look at the images below. If you can identify any famous actors in these illustrations then please let us know over on twitter!

Michael Czerwinski
Public Programmes Manager