The work of Shirley Hughes and Quentin Blake is, as we know from our millennium questionnaire (BfK No. 119), much valued by readers of Books for Keeps. Now Hughes has published a memoir of her life as an illustrator and Blake a diary about his time as the first Children’s Laureate. Joanna Carey explores.<!--break-->
I once saw Shirley Hughes sketching in my local churchyard – a small crowd had gathered to watch. ‘It’s the lady who does the Alfie books,’ said a little girl approvingly. In A Life Drawing: recollections of an illustrator Hughes talks about her ‘sketchbook habit’ and how vital it is to be able to make a fluent, lightning response to what she sees. She always carries a sketchbook – ‘on holiday, in pubs, cafes and parks, and, in my particular field, lurking about in sandpits and play areas.’ Constant drawing, she says, feeds ‘a memory bank in your head’ – and, back in the studio, gives you the freedom to conjure up all those ‘telling gestures and movements’.
After a childhood on Merseyside enriched with visual memories that range from comic books to regular visits to the Walker Art Gallery, whose Victorian and Edwardian paintings gave her such an early understanding of the art of narrative painting, Hughes spent a year at Liverpool Art School studying fashion and costume design. She then went to Oxford to do fine art at the Ruskin which, she says, ‘was a fine art school with a vengeance’. The course, based on 18th-century principles, ‘consisted of drawing antique casts until you were deemed proficient enough to enter the life class.’ Life drawing was of paramount importance, a rigorous discipline, which laid firm foundations for her work as an illustrator and she takes the opportunity here to lament the fact that in the 1960s, when art schools abandoned those academic traditions ‘something vital was lost. We are now trying, somewhat painfully and confusedly, to regain it. Drawing means looking more intently and for longer than you do at any other time.’ Students who don’t have the chance to develop these basic skills are, she says, ‘on a dangerous quicksand which can all too easily sink into pompous pretension, a slavish reliance on photographic references, or poor drawing disguised as irony.’
Strong words. But there are many strands to this richly textured memoir, in which she talks in depth about her work, reveals her own favourite artists, shares her love of Italian art and talks with illuminating authority about the history and development of book illustration. And in addition to her forthright views on the changing face of art education, she writes vividly, often amusingly self deprecatingly about her own time as a student, arriving on her first day at the Ruskin, for example ‘in a cashmere twinset and pearls – the epitome of “good style” in West Kirby …which I thought would be suitable for upmarket academe. This was an obvious blunder. Everyone else was in paint spattered overalls and bits of discarded service uniform …’ An illustration – one of several that strongly evoke the period – shows a life class, circa 1946, where a plump nude model with a peachy bottom, stands on the dais in the glow of an electric fire, surrounded by eager students. As ever in Hughes’ illustrations, there’s a strong narrative element and it’s clear that each character, including the elderly tutor with the red bow tie, has a story to tell …
Dining on ‘watery mince’ and spotted dick with custard, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kingsley Amis, listening to jazz, falling in love, defying post-war shortages by making dresses from parachute silk and billiard-table baize, dancing the rumba and exploring the treasures of the Ashmolean Museum (where, over 50 years later, her own work is now on display), Hughes’ Oxford years are lovingly, extravagantly remembered, and seem bathed in a golden light … In contrast she writes poignantly about the ‘big-city loneliness’ she endured as she subsequently looked for work as an illustrator in London: an unpublished illustration for a Jean Rhys novel captures the wistful mood, and she quotes the advice a gloomy tutor had offered: ‘Book illustration work can only be undertaken as an adjunct to teaching or matrimony.’ She didn’t teach but she did marry and had three children … and she pays tribute to her husband John ‘who kept a roof over our heads’ (he is an architect) while she got her remarkable career under way with the first of her myriad picture books for young children. Hughes writes well about her professional life – her inspirations, her technique and her working relationships with writers, editors and publishers: as well as being a good read, this book has a lot to offer students and aspiring illustrators – and for that reason alone it would surely benefit from a contents page at least, if not an index?
In addition to being generously illustrated throughout, there’s a moment near the end of A Life Drawing, when you find yourself literally inside one of Hughes’ sketchbooks – 15 pages of drawings, swift character sketches, entertaining vignettes, and lyrical loosely handled watercolours from her travels in Italy which along with the Sussex landscapes magically suggest the freedom Hughes enjoys beyond the constraints of the 32-page picture book.
Quentin Blake’s Laureateship
There can’t be many people who have been allowed to draw on the walls at the National Gallery but Quentin Blake has – and it’s one of the tales he tells in Laureate’s Progress – an account, in diary form, of two years that followed his election as the first ever Children’s Laureate. Unlike the Poet Laureate, whose job is steeped in tradition, the Children’s Laureate is a brand new appointment and although it has the ultimate aim of raising the profile of children’s literature, there were no hard and fast rules and the brief was simply to do what seemed appropriate and ‘to enjoy’ – so who better than Blake to approach this blank canvas? Cautious, initially, about the time consuming nature of this task, Blake soon threw himself into it with trail-blazing panache – giving interviews, delivering lectures, launching reading schemes, supporting charities and organizing exhibitions – such as the one at the National Gallery ‘Tell me a Picture’ which drew thousands of young first-time visitors to the National Gallery to see a carefully selected collection of works by contemporary illustrators, modern painters and old masters, which, in spite of their diversity, were all linked by Blake’s own exuberant drawings on the walls, in between the pictures. He also found himself in slightly less opulent surroundings, helping with the National Day of Drawing in the tunnel that leads from South Kensington Underground station to the museums. ‘September 2000,’ he wrote, ‘we’re in the tunnel. Lined with lavatory tiles, not very well lit, about a quarter of a mile long, it isn’t the most attractive of places. But there is a lot of paper on the walls, thanks to London Transport, and free artist’s materials, thanks to Crayola, teams of helpers from the museums … and no lack of artists, not to mention droves of passers-by’ … soon ‘the whole place is full of drawings and people drawing and has developed the benevolent air of an extremely long studio filled with artists happily at work.’
Astonishingly, Blake managed to combine all this with his usual busy schedule, and there are well over a hundred new drawings here from this period, including illustrations for Words and Pictures (a book about his own work), Muck and Magic (an anthology in support of the charity Farms for City Children), and A Sailing Boat in the Sky (done in collaboration with no fewer than 1,800 French speaking school children), and a jacket design for the catalogue of a new exhibition of contemporary illustrators that is coming soon to the British Library. There are posters, sketches of ‘literary London’, charity greetings cards, and bookplates downloaded from the Internet for the Home Library Scheme which was initiated by Anne Fine, who has now succeeded Blake as Children’s Laureate. So what about the Ex-Laureate? … Although he draws himself relaxing in a dustbin it’s clearly business as usual with lots of new projects including a plan that’s been put forward to use the Quentin Blake archive (of around two to three thousand drawings) as a basis for a new, non-commercial gallery in London, exclusively for illustration. This he says, ‘could provide a home for exhibitions of young illustrators, foreign illustrators, illustrators from the past, and open a lot of other portfolios and archives that we rarely see.’
And of course there are new books – the latest is Loveykins … about a bird in a pushchair. He’s currently working on a series of expressive drawings of ‘people-as-birds’ and he explains the genesis of this curious preoccupation – ‘Birds are two-legged, like us, that gives them something of our balance and gesture and makes them nearer to us. Birds-as-people is also a way of talking about people and somehow I find it enables me to draw characters … that I wouldn’t attempt otherwise. I go at them with a black watercolour pencil, which is a new implement for me, and the necessary reminiscence and information seem to seep in from somewhere. The second stage is to brush water into the drawing, when it bleeds black copiously and you really have to pay attention if you want to bring it through.’
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
Shirley Hughes – A Life Drawing: recollections of an illustrator, The Bodley Head, 0 370 32605 9, £19.99 hbk
Quentin Blake – Laureate’s Progress, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 06481 9, £14.99 hbk