Chris Riddell interviewed by Joanna Carey
‘I became an illustrator because I love words,’ says Chris Riddell. ‘It’s all to do with words – as a child I loved reading, I loved words and I loved the idea of making drawings to accompany them. I want to produce the kind of thing I remember from when I was a kid – those books with black and white drawings by artists like Charles Keeping, Victor Ambrus.’
Ever since Tenniel illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland almost all children’s novels had line drawings but it’s a tradition that is now dying out. ‘It’s sad,’ says Riddell. ‘There’s so much fantastic fiction around today, but hardly any illustrations; decorative chapter headings, perhaps, but the visual emphasis now is all on the cover. Obviously there are exceptions, but in general artists have moved away from the tradition of black and white illustrations for novels; it’s an area that no longer attracts innovative illustrators – they all look towards picture books, and colour.’
Riddell too does picture books, of course – ‘You have to, if you’re going to make a living at this,’ he says. Astonishingly prolific, he’s not only done a large number of children’s books, but is also well known for his political cartoons and drawings in the press. But illustrating children’s fiction with line drawings remains his first love and he’s keen to maintain the ‘long, glorious tradition of British black and white illustration that goes right back to the time of Tenniel, by way of Rackham, Heath Robinson, Ronald Searle… and many more.’
He started off in 1984 with two picture books (published by Klaus Flugge at Andersen – ‘my publishing father’ he says). He then did line illustrations for a variety of books by authors including Philip Ridley, Kathryn Cave, Andrew Gibson, Ted Hughes, Brian Patten: working from the manuscript, he had little contact with the authors. But in 1994 he began to work in close collaboration with the author Paul Stewart and now, ten years on, the success of their best selling Edge Chronicles has reached epic proportions.
Meeting Stewart was clearly a turning point. ‘Yes, it’s the collaborative process – that’s when the magic happens. I still tell people who ask my advice about becoming an illustrator, “find yourself an author!”’ So how did he find Stewart? ‘We met at a party in London, found we both lived in Brighton, and travelled back together on the train.’ Riddell talked about his love for black and white line and they discussed the possibility of working together. By way of an example, he showed Stewart the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, and together they produced the Rabbit and Hedgehog series. They then embarked on something bigger – a fantasy novel. To give Stewart something to focus on, Riddell gave him an illustrated ‘cast list’ – drawings of all the characters, and a map of an imaginary land. Stewart wrote a first draft. But – and this must have been a severe test of their relationship – ‘I hated it!’ says Riddell. ‘I wanted fantasy, rather than fairytale. The story needed to grow in a natural way – we didn’t need magic to smooth things along.’ So they talked it through, and for a year notes and drawings flew back and forth as the fantasy took shape. Richly illustrated (in black and white, of course) with its Deepwoods, Silver Glades and its treacherous waste lands, its librarian knights, goblins, cloddertrogs and vengeful shrykes, and its myriad interlocking stories Edgeworld became an absorbing, intricately imagined creation. The stories grew and multiplied, says Riddell. ‘Transworld, our publishers were intrigued – this was long before trilogies became almost de rigueur in children’s books’… and they’ve now published their seventh book in the series, Freeglader.
Speaking in his studio, a converted Victorian coach house at the end of his garden, with a Jack Russell terrier on his lap, Riddell vividly conjures up a sense, not just of the vast scale of this imaginary world, but also of the robust reality it has for him. He shows me the notebook he keeps – a sort of Edgeworld ‘Bible’. Hand lettered, it meticulously records all manner of arcane facts and details about the stories with drawings of all the characters, complex architectural studies, maps and aerial views of the Edge world. ‘For this kind of fantasy you have literally to subsume yourself in the realms of the imaginary place.’
He shares the studio with his wife Jo. She’s a landscape painter – so quite often they’ll be immersed in their work side by side, but in two different worlds. Riddell’s drawings have a curious intensity, worked, even in his notebooks, to a very high degree of finish, no loose ends – even the frequent areas of cross hatching are carefully controlled. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Finish. I have a constant battle with that – I need to loosen up…’ But it’s that purposefully detailed precision that makes his work so distinctive, so instantly recognizable – particularly in the faces he draws, with their wide apart eyes, which almost invariably show the white of the eye all the way round those gimlet-like pupils. Bone structure, wrinkles and sinews are emphasized, nostrils flare, ears are low set and prominent – particularly in the Edge Chronicles (a.k.a. he tells me, The Forsyte Saga with Pointy Ears). Mouths are drawn with subtle sensitivity. And while he has the cartoonist’s compulsion to exaggerate – every knee is a knobbly knee – the figures are drawn with an authoritative understanding of human anatomy – and all its imaginable – and unimaginable – variants.
I’d always assumed that Riddell worked with pen and ink, but, I discover, although he might sometimes use a dip pen for hatching, most of his drawings are done with a very fine sable brush: ‘it has such flexibility – and it makes such an interestingly sinuous line.’ He doesn’t work ‘same size’ – the original drawings are done one third up, so when they are reduced for reproduction, the line ‘closes up’ a little, further accentuating its intricacy.
He shows me a new book, a ‘chapter book’ for younger readers, Fergus Crane – yet another Riddell/Stewart collaboration. With an abundance of images – comic chapter headings, caricatures, far fetched ornithological studies, crazy diagrams and full page illustrations which, with their hand drawn borders and bold use of black areas, recall the style of Heath Robinson, Fergus Crane again celebrates Riddell’s commitment to the tradition of black and white illustrations.
Riddell’s style is remarkably consistent throughout his work – he doesn’t consciously tailor the drawing to the age of the audience – and he finds no difficulty doing an infants’ picture book, like Platypus, say, alongside a political cartoon – ‘there’s no conflict… the one informs the other; in either case, whatever you’re trying to say, you’ve got to catch the eye of the reader, and you’ve got to entertain.’
He’s worked on several national newspapers and periodicals ever since, back in the ’80s, one of his early picture books caught the eye of someone at the Economist and a weekly cartoon was commissioned. He has a regular spot in the Literary Review – ‘Illustrations for Unpublished Books’: Lady Chatterley’s Hoover, for example, and he’s currently the political cartoonist for the Observer, going to the office in London every Friday to do the cartoon for Sunday. Isn’t it difficult, working on the spot like that? Does it ever go wrong? Do you ever run out of time? ‘No, I work fast, and I work well under pressure… it’s like riding a bike, as long as I don’t concentrate on the technicalities I just get on with it… and I like being among journalists and seeing my work in a political context.’
His interest in politics goes back to his childhood – he was born in 1962 in South Africa where his father was a vicar – ‘low church, evangelical’ – and a member of the ANC. Both parents were political activists, fighting apartheid. When, with three children, they returned to England, he was brought up in a series of draughty vicarages. ‘We moved house – and school – the whole time, up and down the country. Yes it was confusing but,’ he says with a smile, ‘we were all right – my father always assured us that his frequent moves were guided by the Holy Spirit.’ When his father became chaplain at Brixton Prison Riddell went to school nearby – ‘a grammar school; all swishing gowns, assemblies and organ recitals and an embarrassingly conspicuous uniform. And we had to bow to the headmaster.’ Art wasn’t top priority in this particular grove of academe – ‘the art room was seen as the closest thing the school had to “special needs” but I had a wonderfully idiosyncratic art teacher, a painter who’d also been a newspaper cartoonist. He really taught me to draw and with just two of us doing A level art, he somehow arranged for us to do life drawing at a local art school.’ Due to read English at Exeter, Riddell escaped at the last minute and ‘ran away to art school’. He studied illustration at Brighton, under John Vernon Lord and Raymond Briggs. ‘That was a wonderful time, there was printmaking – etching, lithography and lots of drawing – there was a real sense of the primacy of drawing – everything was allied to the importance of basic draughtsmanship.’
He talks a lot about draughtsmanship. It’s no surprise then, that Ronald Searle was an early influence. ‘I enjoy the presence of drawing, the evidence of the human hand’ – he mentions a number of contemporary illustrators, like Quentin Blake, Tony Ross – ‘I love that gestural freedom – or Michael Foreman… have you ever seen his sketch books? What an amazing draughtsman he is!’
Riddell’s own sketchbook – ‘a repository for all kinds of things – I certainly wouldn’t show it to a psychiatrist!’ contains some intriguingly disparate images: angry men in overcoats, dragons, babies, strange birds and a Grim Reaper, complete with scythe. And, of course, drawings of politicians: and photographs clipped from the newspapers… Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson are sellotaped in there – helpless, like butterflies on pins, waiting to be examined, distorted, lampooned.
And there’s a glimpse of Tony Blair in Riddell’s latest book (which he has dedicated to his father), a retelling of Gulliver’s Travels, by the 18th-century satirist, Jonathan Swift. Blair’s image appears in a passage that suggests ways of dealing with evasive government ministers who don’t keep their promises. Riddell has seized with relish all the opportunities offered by Martin Jenkins’ excellent retelling of these fabulous adventures. Rich in political satire, and surreal pythonesque humour, his action packed spreads, skilful handling of scale and attention to period detail make this a real tour de force. There are 70 colour spreads – many of them showing Riddell’s stunning virtuosity both in colour and line.
This was clearly a colossal undertaking. I wondered how he had set about it? ‘There’s a tendency in picture books to illustrate the action with a sequential approach, but there was so much going on here that I decided to concentrate on single incidents from the text, and to pick the least obvious ones… And that allowed me to build on the the sub text – things like the unreliability of the narrator – there are rumours, for example, in the story, that Gulliver had a love affair with a Lilliputian lady: he denies it, but you can see it in his eyes, as she parades around on his table in a little coach.’
The book opens with an atmospheric full colour illustration, set in a mellow 18th-century panelled room. Full of narrative detail, it’s a flash forward to the end of the story: Gulliver, old and exhausted, has been up all night writing his memoirs, his candle has guttered out, his glass is empty. Before him on the table lie the notes and drawings from his travels – a heaving sea of papers – a Hiroshige inspired image, whose formal rhythms continue on the next page, where, in a tidal wave of black and white cross hatching, the story actually begins – with Gulliver, half drowned after the ship wreck, up to his huge flapping ears in water. And it’s after this that he wakes up in Lilliput.
And is Riddell going to put his feet up now, after all that hard work? Apparently not… along with all his regular commitments, he’s just signed a new five-book contract with Macmillan AND he’s just about to embark on another collaboration with Martin Jenkins. Something light and insubstantial this time? ‘Well, not exactly,’ he laughs. ‘It’s Cervantes’ Don Quixote.’
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
Photographs by Joanna Carey.
Some of Chris Riddell’s many books:
Dakota of the White Flats, Mercedes Ice, Scribbleboy etc. (with Philip Ridley) are published by Puffin.
Henry Hobbs titles, William and the Wolves, etc. (with Kathryn Cave) are published by Hodder.
Gargling with Jelly, Juggling with Gerbils, etc. (with Brian Patten) are published by Puffin.
Rabbit’s Wish (0 86264 719 3, £9.99 hbk, 1 84270 089 8, £4.99 pbk) and other Rabbit and Hedgehog books (with Paul Stewart) are published by Andersen.
Freeglader (0 385 60462 9, £12.99 hbk) and other Edge Chronicles titles (with Paul Stewart) are published by Random House.
Fergus Crane (with Paul Stewart), Random House, 0 385 60719 9, £8.99 hbk
Blobheads titles and Muddle Earth (with Paul Stewart) are published by Macmillan.
Free Lance and the Lake of Skulls and Free Lance and the Field of Blood (with Paul Stewart) are published by Hodder.
Platypus (0 670 89421 4, £9.99 hbk, 0 14 056777 1, £4.99 pbk) and other Platypus titles are published by Puffin.
Castle Diary and Pirate Diary (with Richard Platt) are published by Walker.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, retold by Martin Jenkins, Walker, 0 7445 8642 9, £14.99 hbk