I am deprived of the element of surprise and speculation which belongs to the usual interviewer as Emma Chichester Clark has been one of my closest friends for over fifteen years. Might that – I put it to BfK’s editor when she asked me to write this authorgraph – in various ways disqualify me for the job? Not so, apparently; someone who does drawing was to write about someone who does drawing.
I know already that if Emma may at times sound apologetic she is in reality quietly efficient (and even intrepid, to the point of sailing a yacht across the Atlantic as half of a crew of two). And that an occasional whirling of the eyes that might appear dizzy simply indicates that her brains are working faster than anyone’s in the appreciation of the humour of a situation. But there are things to find out that I don’t know about – how did she begin, for instance?
‘In the first place, as a child, it was pictures of my family with no necks. I drew all the time. I always thought that I was going to draw for the rest of my life; that was going to be the way I earned my living.’
The next significant step in the direction of what Emma does now was with the arrival at her school of a new young teacher who set an actual project to illustrate something. ‘I went and chose a poem by W B Yeats, rather a romantic, soppy poem, and did it; and from then on we did it non-stop.’
After leaving school Emma did the foundation course at Bristol, and worked in a chocolate factory, and decided at the last minute not to go to New Zealand and get married, and was a chambermaid in a hotel and drew red cabbages and other vegetables in her spare time and eventually found herself at Chelsea Art School.
‘Chelsea was very strange and we were all in a kind of slump because of the political tensions … we weren’t really asked to do drawing and illustration – we used to do our illustrations hidden in our LCP type books.’ The person who battled most for drawing was Susan Einzig, who ran a sort of continuous conversation about Bonnard and Matisse and life drawing – ‘Some people would say that Susan had given them practically their entire education.’ And among the highlights was Linda Kitson (later to be known as ‘Kitbags’ since her time as a war artist in the Falklands): ‘She came in like a whirlwind and spent time with each person, which no-one had ever done before, and fizzed us all up – made us all want to start drawing and somehow found what it was in each person that was their individual being – found it and made us get enthusiastic.’
After Chelsea Emma joined the Illustration Department at the RCA; because ‘everybody wanted to go there’ and also because she knew the work of the head of the department*: she could remember poring over a copy of Mr Horrox and the Gratch as a teenager in her bedroom in Ireland, and recognising it as ‘something exciting and somehow familiar’.
If you have been involved in teaching, it is possible to feel sometimes that you never taught anybody anything; so I was pleased to be reminded that I had pointed out that the postage-stamp size sketches she was doing for some illustrations to Jules et Jim would work perfectly well as roughs; and to discover that it is the method she still uses to start work on her own books.
On leaving the RCA, Emma made a couple of false starts with children’s books, and as a result took an artist’s agent and became one of the most prolific stars of the bookjacket. ‘I think I did about a hundred and fifty in the space of about three years.’ But she still wanted do children’s books, and at that point the big break came, with Rona Selby, who had unearthed photocopies of work that had been in the files at The Bodley Head for years – unsuitable in itself because dark and gloomy – and said: ‘Do you think you could have a new style for children?’ The stories that she offered for the experiment had been gathered together by Laura Cecil, and when it was a success, they were published as Listen to This. For that, Emma won the Mother Goose Award, and she had made her move and unmistakably made her mark.
I am not sure that those years with bookjackets did not leave some useful legacy; let us say, at least, that wherever it came from, Emma has a sense of the dramatic moments in a story, and a control of the range of tones, through from light to dark, in its depiction. When these two come together there are wonderful scenes of storm, gloom, starlight; atmospheric but precise. There is also an ability to allow the funny and the poetic to live together which makes me feel that James Reeve’s Ragged Robin, for instance, had been waiting for her to illustrate it. Perhaps it is another aspect of this which enables her on occasion to do something that I find hard to define, but which I think occurs in artists that Emma admires, like Bemelmans and de Brunhoff and Ardizzone: of making pictures that have a sort of atmospheric conviction that make you want to go back and look at them for the sense of that moment. In Tertius and Pliny, for instance, to take an example almost at random, there are pictures of the monkey and the little dog on the red aeroplane, that give me that feeling of permanence.
And there is also Emma’s sense of the weight and shape and disposition of images on the page. Sometimes when a children’s book makes that offer of ‘decorative’ you can forget about the story, and just settle down to appreciate the gold printing. But in Thumbelina, for instance, there is both a decorative formality of flowers and leaves, rather like an updated version of Dicky Doyle’s fairyland, and a diversity of shape and disposition in the pictures that leads the story along. Or in Gina Pollinger’s Shakespeare sampler Something Rich and Strange, where the nature of the book invites a whole repertoire of decorative items but there is still enough atmosphere to make a bow to moonlight in Verona and the storm on the heath.
To my surprise I discover that all these books are variations on what is fundamentally the same technique. They are a combination of Dr Martin’s inks – which can be very bright (as in Miss Bilberry’s New House) or diluted and used layer upon layer, and crayons, which may provide the outline, and sometimes goes over the ink to make it deeper or more three-dimensional. The colours for each book are generally worked out beforehand; for More! there was actually a collage of pieces snipped from magazines to make a kind of colour chart for reference during work on the book.
Emma’s own books are now published by Klaus Flugge at the Andersen Press, and she is obviously relishing the enthusiasm she finds there: the small-scale urgency of the enterprise, the straightforward love of books.
For Klaus she has already done Little Miss Muffet Counts to Ten which drives the familiar nursery rhyme to the point of hysteria with a huge cast of countable animals including her favourite lemurs. More! and I Love You, Blue Kangaroo (still in production) are closer to warm domestic sentiments than hitherto, but still handled with wit and unexpectedness. (No brown Kangaroos here.) Emma believes that books for children should be ‘wild – adventurous and imaginative … something that you can escape into, something that you don’t get later on. It might be the only chance. It’s the only time when the child is allowed to develop its imagination and it’s so porous that it should be filled with extraordinary things, not mundane and boring things.’ I think Emma is someone who is going to keep on and find all kinds of extraordinary things for us. Klaus Flugge must be looking forward to it. I am.
* Quentin Blake. Ed
Some of Emma Chichester Clark’s many titles currently available
I Never Saw a Purple Cow, Walker, 0 7445 3077 6, £6.99 pbk
Thumbelina, retold by Jane Falloon, Pavilion, 1 85793 550 0, £9.99 hbk, 1 86205 169 0, £5.99 pbk
Something Rich and Strange, selected by Gina Pollinger, Kingfisher, 1 85697 387 5, £12.99 hbk
Miss Bilberry’s New House, Mammoth, 0 7497 2502 8, £4.50 pbk
Tea with Aunt Augusta, Mammoth, 0 7497 1274 0, £4.99 pbk
Noah and the Space Ark, Laura Cecil, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13680 6, £9.99 hbk
The Orchard Book of Greek Gods and Goddesses, Geraldine McCaughrean, Orchard, 1 86039 109 5, £12.99 hbk
The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, Orchard, 1 85213 373 2, £12.99 hbk
Piper: A Dog’s Life, Cape, 0 224 04690 X, £8.99 hbk
Little Miss Muffet Counts to Ten, Andersen, 0 86264 747 9, £8.99 hbk
More!, Andersen, 0 86264 777 0, £9.99 hbk
I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Andersen, is due to be published in August
Quentin Blake is the illustrator of, amongst many others, the books of Roald Dahl. He also illustrated the joint winner of the Whitbread award, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and his own Kate Greenaway Medal winner, Mister Magnolia. He was Head of the Illustration Department of the Royal College of Art from 1978-1986.