The last stretch of my seven hour journey to meet Patrick Benson is on a bus from Edinburgh. There’s just one other passenger – a man in a kilt who gets off in the middle of nowhere and vanishes into the drizzle with his bagpipes.
‘Yes it is quite remote’ says Benson, who meets me at Melrose.’ I used to live in the south but I can now live miles away from London and still be in touch with publishers and editors – thanks to modern technology.’
But the impact of modern technology isn’t immediately apparent in the easy-going atmosphere of the rambling home he shares with his partner Augusta and their six year old son Barnaby. Above the kitchen mantelpiece, where teapots, jugs and jam jars jostle for space, are two large clocks – each telling a different time – both wrong. And by the back door Benson proudly draws my attention to a brand-new, but distinctly old-fangled pitchfork – for use in the stables, he says. I don’t actually get to see the horses, but there’s no shortage of livestock indoors – dogs, tropical fish, hamsters, stick insects and a tortoise in what looks like an intensive care unit. Fishing rods, saddles, heirlooms and gumboots abound.
Benson has a ready wit and an informal but patrician manner. He describes his background as ‘landed gentry’ and combines a fondness for country pursuits (especially fishing) with a touching ability to lavish tender loving care on the tortoise. And the spaniels, flopping around like fake-fur pyjama cases, are fully trained gun dogs.
He grew up on a farm in the Cotswolds and after leaving Eton, studied classical drawing in Florence, and did a foundation year at Chelsea art school. He then took a year out, painting murals. ‘A dreadful business, people are never satisfied … keep calling you back to add things … to make it a little more Tuscan, for example or to put in a few more urns or peacocks or whatever.’ He then got a place at St Martin’s – ‘though they gave me a hard time at my interview on account of my background’ to study graphics, and before embarking on his illustrating career he spent some time in the fashion business with his cousin Arabella Pollen, the designer. ‘I was really rather good on the sewing machine.’ ‘He’s multi-talented’ says Augusta who’s dishing up lunch for Barnaby and a young friend who has come to play.
He may boast about his sewing but Benson is genuinely modest about his successes as an illustrator. He has illustrated over 30 books – and though he talks with passionate enthusiasm about the work, he continually turns the conversation away from himself and towards those he admires like Fritz Wegner, his teacher at St Martin’s. ‘He’s like a god to me – a wonderful man, a brilliant artist’ he says producing, from a slithering pile of books, Wegner’s latest – The Tale of the Turnip . Illustrators are often reluctant to say which of their peers they admire, but Benson readily reels off a list including Max Velthuis, Lisbeth Zwerger, Quentin Blake, and, in particular, John Burningham (‘he’s extraordinary – he never puts a foot wrong’) and he goes on to acknowledge a wide range of influences; from Ardizzone, E H Shepard (‘he really was a genius – he drew SO much better than any of us lot’), Heath Robinson, Tunnicliffe, Cecil Aldin, right back to Hokusai, Durer… ‘I think we all borrow a little here and there – even if we don’t let on; but if you really want to know what initially inspired me, it was these books I was given as a child, by my grandmother. They came from Paris at the turn of the century’, and he indicates a collection of books about Napoleon, Frederick the Great, The Sun King – huge books, with spectacular illustrations by Job, and Maurice le Noir.
So as an illustrator, is he on an equal footing with the author? ‘Well, it’s complicated. I think with picture books, people tend to underestimate the skills of the author. They’ll pick a book up attracted by the pictures, read it through, then say Cor Blimey! That must have taken all of twenty minutes to write! But there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. I know, I’ve done it (he wrote and illustrated Little Penguin ) but really I don’t have enough of the ‘whizzy’ ideas you need for that – but with people like William Mayne, Russell Hoban, Adrian Mitchell, Roald Dahl, Martin Waddell, Kathy Henderson, I’ve been incredibly lucky with authors. And great writing really is of paramount importance.’
So what basically is the function of the illustrator? Is it to interpret the text? To elaborate on it? Extend it? ‘The first thing is simply to help the child visualize the surroundings in which the story is happening – to provide lots of visual clues, “snapshots”, bits of information – to provide “a springboard for the imagination”. ‘Sorry about that cliché,’ he says, laughing.
But the springboard metaphor is strangely appropriate – right on cue Barnaby reappears to report an emergency: since lunchtime, he and his friend have been exercising their imaginations by leaping about in the bedroom – and the friend’s leg is now painfully jammed between the wooden slats on the top bunk. Benson flies to the rescue, but doesn’t lose the thread of the discussion.
‘I’m always conscious that illustrations can fail. I’m well aware of the dangers,’ he says, setting off up the stairs with a screw driver – and a saw just in case, followed by Augusta with a camera, and me with my notebook. And as he wades through a mountain of bedding to dismantle the bed he continues …
‘I know that the wrong illustrations can literally destroy a dream … and however powerful the text, ultimately it’s the images that stick in the mind.’
And as the friend’s leg is released, Augusta captures the moment with a snapshot and we go on up to the studio.
It’s a scene of somewhat chaotic creativity – various cardboard boxes spill out their contents, suggesting a recent house move – or a small earth tremor perhaps. There’s a Spanish guitar on the floor and dog-bed that looks like a baggy trampoline. But neatly laid out by his desk, is an immaculate set of black and white drawings for the latest of William Horwood’s sequels to The Wind in the Willows . This is the fifth in the series, ‘and quite enough!’ he says – ‘though it’s good fun working on something when you know the characters so well … even if they are bunch of misogynist old codgers … and the bonus was that I actually got a chance to re-illustrate Grahame’s Wind in the Willows . The only trouble with that was that I soon found that naturally, Shepard had nabbed all the best scenes. But it was a brilliant opportunity which arose from the fact that my work can sit comfortably alongside Shepard’s because I don’t really have a strong style of my own.’
Although he makes this point repeatedly, Benson does of course have a very distinctive style – notable particularly for faultless drawing, and for the infinite variety of tonal and textural qualities he creates with his complex system of rhythmical hatching and cross-hatching. Using a wide variety of pens, nibs, rapidographs and brushes, and mixing his own inks, he has a subtle eloquent line which varies in character from a wistful delicacy to a vigorous, wiry intensity. ‘I always work “same size”,’ he says, ‘so I can control the weight of the line.’
He works on Fabriano paper, stretching the paper before applying colour – a combination of watercolour paints, and Dr Martin’s concentrated watercolour inks (that come in those little bottles with a squeezy thing like a medicine dropper). ‘The droppers are useful’ he says, ‘I once used one to feed a baby hedgehog.’ ‘And there was that kestrel,’ says Augusta, ‘the one we had to keep dead mice in the freezer for.’
This leads me on to ask about Owl Babies . Were those baby owls drawn from life? ‘Well it was dreadful actually. Someone told me about a barn owl that had five babies but when I got there the mother and father owl had eaten them all. Apparently that does happen.’ But not in picture books luckily.
Interestingly, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell was an opportunity Benson might well have overlooked – for there’s often quite a gulf between the author’s intention, and the artist’s initial understanding of the text – and here he extols the work of his ‘brilliant and perceptive’ editors at Walker Books.
‘I mean … look at the text of Owl Babies . What exactly have you got? Three baby owls and their mum. Mum flies off, the babies get worried and Mum comes back. Quite honestly, I didn’t get it, but my wonderful editor David Lloyd simply said, ‘This is the perfect picture book text!’ He talked me into it. He was right and it’s my most successful book.’
It’s an enchanting book, with pictures that tell the simple story with cinematic verve. ‘Because it’s a night time story I wanted it very dark, but I also wanted rich colours so I solved this by transferring the black and white drawing onto clear film, then, lifting the film, I coloured underneath.’ Beautifully printed, the effect is that of stained glass, with the luminosity of the vibrant colours divided by the black ‘leaded’ areas which have a fine inky sheen.
The new book, The Sea-Thing Child , has a very different background. It’s a story that Hoban wrote some twenty years ago – Benson came across it and asked if he might illustrate it. The result is a perfect marriage of richly textured words and pictures, with a simple, straightforward layout. Did author and artist work very closely together? ‘Not really. I’ve worked with Hoban before and he knows my work. He looks at the work in progress, but he’s very generous – he doesn’t interfere. He used to be an illustrator himself, so he knows the business.’
In the story, the little sea-thing child, ‘a little draggled heap of fright’ that Benson portrays as something like a baby puffin, is washed ashore in a storm. Terrified, he builds a sea-stone igloo and hides. He makes two friends – an anxious crab, who’s full of self doubt, scared of the unknown, and a wise old albatross who urges him to spread his wings and take his rightful place in the world. Gradually he gathers confidence to get back to the sea where he belongs. It’s a funny, poignant uplifting story accessible at any level of understanding – and open to as much psychological analysis as you care to give it.
Benson spent a long time drawing on the south-west coast of Scotland for this book – and even building ‘sea-stone’ igloos on the beach with Barnaby, and the poetry of the text is richly reflected in the depth, the sensitivity and the gentle humour of his illustrations. Each successive reading yields further delights – you can almost smell the sea, and hear the pebbles ‘clicking in the tide-wash’, and you can taste ‘the salt night … in the slap and gurgle of the waves.’
And with Benson’s cunning use of scale – fine foreground details, and wide horizons beyond – you really can feel the vastness of the sea and when the little bird boldly launches himself back into the foam, you know he’s in his element.
And so, it seems, with these illustrations, is Benson.
(published by Walker unless otherwise indicated)
The Sea-Thing Child by Russell Hoban, 0 7445 6743 2, £10.99 hbk
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, 0 7445 2166 1, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 3167 5, £4.99 pbk
Little Penguin , 0 7445 6056 X, £4.99 pbk
The Little Boat by Kathy Henderson, 0 7445 2181 5, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 5253 2, £4.99 pbk
The Hob Stories by William Mayne, 0 7445 4994 9, £10.99 hbk
Herbert: Five Stories by Ivor Cutler, 0 7445 0702 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 4778 4, £4.99 pbk
Trickster Tales by Berlie Doherty, 0 7445 4467 X, £12.99 hbk
Let the Lynx Come In by Jonathan London, 0 7445 4038 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6041 1, £4.99 pbk
Robin Hood by Sarah Hayes, 0 7445 0746 4, £8.95 hbk
Fred the Angel by Martin Waddell, 0 7445 0832 0, £3.50 pbk
The Minpins by Roald Dahl, Puffin, 0 14 054371 6, £5.99 pbk
Photographs by Joanna Carey
Joanna Carey is an author and illustrator and the former Children’s Book Editor of The Guardian .