When Templar called to tell Grahame Baker-Smith that he had won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2011 for FArTHER, he was out running. ‘When I returned, my wife Linda told me I had to ring my publishers. A bit worried, I phoned Mandy (Wood). She said, “Hold onto something,” and I thought, it must be really bad, and then she told me. I was utterly amazed. Both at winning such an award, and at how convincingly Linda could lie to me!’
Baker-Smith’s unalloyed joy at winning the prestigious Medal reflects the fact that it is a vindication of his dogged determination to succeed as an illustrator through many difficult times. In fact, it was a struggle even to get started, despite knowing from a very early age that he wanted to draw. His school days were not a success. His careers master told him, ‘Better face it, you’re a plodder’. Even Art didn’t engage him. ‘It was too pedantic. I had visions of walkways in space disappearing into the gaping mouths of tortured, disembodied, floating head. So I didn’t want to sit and draw a cabbage or a vase of chrysanthemums.’ Instead, he spent hours copying the illustrations in American comics, particularly the work of Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Steve Ditko. Comics inspired him to flights of fancy, drawing spaceships and imagining other planets and dimensions.
It was while living in a series of bedsits in Oxford in his early 20s, however, that Baker-Smith began drawing in earnest. ‘I spent a lot of time in museums drawing classical statues and busts, training myself and enduring the somewhat financially constrained consequences.’ In the Oxford Library he discovered the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Robinson, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac and spent hours poring over their work. ‘I had my own college thing going. It was the beginning of my true education.’
He subsequently went to a real college – Berkshire College in Reading – where he was allowed straight onto the 3rd year of the Illustration Course on the strength of the work he had already done. His contemporaries included fellow illustrator, Dave McKean.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Baker-Smith made a living as an illustrator doing editorial, book jacket, design and advertising work. In 1996, together with Linda, (also an illustrator) he established a card company called Shooting Star in memory of their first baby, Joseph, who died in 1993 of cot death. After a while, the appeal of running a company started to pall. ‘I had to go back to my love of illustration and the telling of stories.’
Around this time, his first children’s books were published. None of them sold in any quantity and Baker-Smith felt his career was over. ‘Nothing seemed to be working, I had taken advice on how things should be done, I had compromised on some key parts of my work and everything was ignored. I had to face the awful prospect that it might not be good enough. And yet something in me would not give up.’
Then came a watershed moment. ‘I realised that, over the years of illustrating to someone else’s brief, I had become more and more timid. Everything had tightened up and I had lost my way. I felt that if I was ever going to get to that “voice” I had to do something new, something risky. I had always given digital media a wide berth and one day I asked myself; why?’ Many late nights followed as Baker-Smith tried to master Photoshop. And then a growing sense of excitement took hold. ‘Photoshop enhanced all the hard-won traditional skills I had. I found something very rich and connecting in it and at last I felt I could say something that was unique and true to myself.’
Baker-Smith showed his new style of work to publishers, but generally the feedback was not positive. ‘Most felt that work created with the help of a computer, even with a lot of painting and drawing in it, would not be well received by the picture-book buying public.’ On seeing some of Baker-Smith’s illustrations of stories by his friend, Angela McAllister, Mike Jolly, art director at Templar felt differently and took him on. The eventual result was Leon and the Place Between, shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway last year.
And then came FArTHER. ‘“Poppies lined the path to my father’s house” just came to me as the first line of the book. I also had an image in my head of a man making wings. And then the whole book came out, line by line. I wrote it in about an hour-and-a-half, a bottle of Theakstons Old Peculier to hand and a deep November frost outside.’
FArTHER is about inheritance. It’s a very symbolic book really. We all want our children to fly. In the story, the house is rooted in the rock, and the father cannot break free. But later, the son succeeds in taking off to the place of his father’s dream. One generation must ultimately give way to the next, so that they can go Farther than we have. Without death, there is no progress.’
Besides this award-winning book, Baker-Smith has been inspired to many other illustration projects in his new style, including an animated interactive game for the Chicago Field Museum. He also designed the cover for Robert Plant’s 2005 album, The Mighty Rearranger. More recently, he has completed an edition of Pinocchio for the Folio Society and a version of Robin Hood for Barefoot Books. There’s another book for Templar with Angela McAllister in the offing too, entitled Winter’s Child. His next big solo project is Tales From Terramaunia, a 40,000 word illustrated novel for which he has already written the text.
With a prestigious Medal on the mantelpiece, and plenty of work in the pipeline, Baker-Smith can look back philosophically on the journey. ‘It’s been an extraordinary, painful, joyous, frustrating and wonderful trip. The only thing that has kept me going through all the ups and downs is a connection to my imagination.’