Angela Barrett interviewed by Quentin Blake <!--break-->
I was a little surprised when Angela Barrett showed me her studio for the first time – it was perhaps simply because the studio-ness of it was so restrained. The place where illustration happens in her London mansion flat opens through an archway from the sitting-room, and there is little change of atmosphere – there are the same swagged velvet curtains, some pale, curved 19th-century furniture, a large mirror surrounded by photographs. In front of it, a large dark Victorian partners’ desk where Angela sits to draw. For a moment I can’t quite help being reminded of Jane Austen writing her novels under the guise of correspondence, though here the imposing desk gives a sense of authority to the activity, though not in quite the way one would generally expect.
And the sense of authority is there, too, in the images produced at the desk, as will be evident to anyone who picks up Shakespeare Stories or Rocking Horse Land. But what is the road like to these impressive destinations? How does it all start?
‘I’m starting with a sketchbook right from the very beginning – from the moment somebody first mentions something to me, even before I get the text, I am thinking my first thoughts, and I open a sketchbook – it’s very important to have a new sketchbook for every book. I usually get a commission to do something about a year and a half before I actually start – ideas come in odd places and often get written down in odd places, but they all get assembled in a sketchbook. When the time comes I start working on full-sized roughs. People are kind and don’t require me to provide a complete set of roughs, because I don’t like to commit myself to a set of ideas right at the beginning. Ideas for pictures develop as I go along. Then there’s always a dull bit, and when l was at college I would have skipped that – but part of being grown-up and a proper illustrator is that you can’t skip that. There’s a spread with nothing on it and you trawl through it again until you find some nugget you can use.
For the roughs I work on – what’s that thin paper called – layout paper. I assemble the composition, until I’ve got it approximately right. I’ve changed over the years; there was a time when I would try to get it as near as dammit the way it was going to look on the finished drawing on the layout paper and then transfer it – but now I think that wipes out too much spontaneity – so I leave the possibility for something else to happen. One of the funny things I do now is, when I have finished drawing out the picture on the watecolour paper I take it up to the photocopiers and have it photocopied – because I’ve often drawn it very precisely and I quite like it – and then I obliterate it with paint and can’t find it again.’
How does it get from the layout paper to the final drawing?
‘I haven’t got a lightbox so I usually stick it to the window and trace it off like that.’
I was interested to know what it was traced off on to. Angela described it as some kind of smooth and silky Italian handmade paper – Fabriano Artistica Satinata.
One of the aspects of Angela Barrett’s work that fascinates me is her seemingly endless capacity for getting better – I mean for carrying off with conviction more complicated or difficult (and often moving) effects. Perhaps it was not the sort of question that can expect a detailed reply, and her response – to the effect that if something is all you’ve got, you have to do your very best by it – was I’m sure her modest way of indicating a toughness of commitment, one which the lack of a lightbox and suchlike might seem to belie.
In technical terms the advance in achievement may perhaps also be associated with the move from pen-and-ink to pencil – you can see what I mean if you compare Stories from the Ballet, 1994 with Shakespeare Stories in 2000. The first book is naturally decorative (‘it called for pink’); in the second there is an enormous development not only in the draughtsmanship but in drama and realism.
That is, if realism is what I mean. This is one of the areas where the available vocabulary seems not to give us a great deal of help: ‘realistic’, ‘naturalistic’, ‘detailed’ – they cover such a variety of appearances. Angela Barrett’s people have normal proportions; they are three-dimensional and exist in three-dimensional space, they are depicted with detail. Are they realistic?
‘When I first went to art school, if someone had let me be a Pre-Raphaelite painter, I’d have been a Pre-Raphaelite painter. But since then I’ve become less interested in them. Now, I’m pleased if I do something and can think, yes, that looks realistic. But of course, overall, they’re not the least bit realistic. My figures are all sort of distorted. They’re about trying to show heightened emotion. It’s the same with perspective. When I start a book I try to work out vanishing points and so on, but I find it won’t do for what I want to say. I take awful liberties with perspective, and then I comfort myself with the thought that they can do it in the theatre, so I can do it.’
Does she make use of photos in the preparatory work for her illustrations? The answer is No, because ‘the people in photos don’t look like my people.’ At the same time she is emphatic about the importance to her of photography (‘I take lots of photos’) as well as of film and television – but it has more to do with the composition of her pictures, their viewpoint, the way that things are cropped away, the way we may see the back of one head and the full face of another. It must also, I’m sure, influence her choice of significant dramatic moments and the way she shows them.
And these moments, the choice of which are so important to an illustrator, really are significant moments – not just things suitable to draw. Think of Joan in the orchard, hearing her voices for the first time or the witch leaving Snow White stretched out on the floor as she makes her way to the woods.
I wanted to know more about Snow White which impresses me in its extraordinary ability to get away from other previous versions (including Disney) and achieve the experience as if for the first time. ‘Actually I have got a book of Disney’s Snow White that I rather like: the pictures are printed with black borders so that they look almost luminous. I think that if one says one is not going to do it like Walt Disney, one thing that strikes you is that those dwarfs should have more dignity. My editor had suggested I might do it medieval, but I wanted it so that the costumes were almost of no period.’ There is no doubt about specific period references in The Emperor’s New Clothes, which Angela quotes as another favourite amongst her books – ‘for once I was allowed to do something funny.’
For this book it was not a question of costumes of ‘no period’ but of a very specific one, and Angela has obviously had a great deal of pleasure with that aspect of the book, as well as with the almost exotic layout. Rather surprisingly she suggests that she set about it almost instinctively, in reaction to the repetitiveness of the story. It is after all, as she observes, a one-joke story, the joke being that the king was naked. Hence a preliminary enquiry: ‘the first thing I said to David Lloyd (her editor at Walker Books) when I took on The Emperor’s New Clothes was “can I show his penis?” and he said, “Do you want to?” I said “No, but in case I have a brilliant idea I like to know where I am right at the beginning.”’
Angela reckons not to think too much about her young audience, though she does think about herself as a girl, while recognising that childhood attitudes and reactions may have subsequently changed. Nor does she worry too much about sophistication (‘only the best is good enough for them, after all’). The quality of her drawings, however, must be a sensitive matter – once you establish that degree of intensity and detail, you are playing for high stakes. It’s a brave woman who does it. And perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising that Angela Barrett expresses some trepidation in getting to grips with her work.
Her way of expressing it is characteristic. ‘My unwillingness to do things constantly amazes me, and when people say to me, oh someone’s offered me a project and I’m terribly excited, I have trouble connecting with it – I think, well, perhaps I’m excited, but mostly I just think it’s more bloody work ... When you’ve gone today I shall probably do the washing and then I’ll probably go out and wander about for a bit and I might get down to doing some work later.’
However, elsewhere in our conversation, Angela Barrett has allowed herself to admit that while she is at work that excitement does develop; and looking at the results one can recognise the evidence of excitement, a controlled excitement of the most valuable kind.
Photographs by Martin Ellis.
Author and illustrator Quentin Blake was the first Children’s Laureate.
Some of the many titles illustrated by Angela Barrett
The Orchard Book of Shakespeare Stories, retold by Andrew Matthews, 1 86039 161 3, £12.99 hbk (see page 7 and front cover of this issue of BfK)
The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, 1 85213 493 3, £12.99 hbk, 1 86039 776 X, £8.99 pbk
The Ice Palace, Angela McAllister, Red Fox, 0 09 922201 9, £4.99 pbk
Snow White, Josephine Poole, Red Fox, 0 09 918561 X, £4.50 pbk
Joan of Ark, Josephine Poole, Hutchinson, 0 09 176754 7, £9.99 hbk, Red Fox, 0 09 955361 9, £4.99 pbk
The Hidden House, Martin Waddell, Walker, 0 7445 1266 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 1797 4, £4.99 pbk
The Walker Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Susan Hill, Walker, 0 7445 0766 9, £14.99 hbk
The Emperor's New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Naomi Lewis, Walker, 0 7445 7295 9, £4.99 pbk
Rocking Horse Land and Other Classic Tales of Dolls and Toys, compiled by Naomi Lewis, Walker, 0 7445 5566 3, £12.99 hbk