Tony Ross is a happy man.
‘I wake up every morning aware of how lucky I am, earning a good living at what I actually enjoy. Yes, I do a lot of work, but it isn’t really work. My father was with ICI all his life – that’s work; carrying bricks – that’s work; going down pits, digging farmland on cold mornings – that’s work. But sitting in a studio doing little drawings – that’s marvellous!’
This sounds like a very moral person. ‘If you’ve got four kids you must be. All the people I’ve dealt with have always been dead square and honest with me – I don’t believe the world is made up of sharp people out to trick you and cash in on you. Start lying and all the ramifications of trickery, and everything falls apart.
‘I haven’t got an agent, and I don’t even read contracts – in fact, I often finish a book before I’ve got a contract, especially with the French, because they work so slowly and I work so fast. Publishing people are really very nice down to a T, or perhaps it’s children’s books people?
‘Anyway, I don’t put a value on what I do. I enjoy it, and sell it if someone makes an offer, and give it away if not. I just do the pictures, good pictures or bad pictures, and let the publisher lord it over his province. I don’t fret over artwork not being returned or lost in exhibitions and so on – some people care to distraction, but I don’t. I’ll do another drawing: I’m not dead yet.’
It’s no surprise, then, that fairy tales with their morals attract him. ‘Also, apart from the fact that they present a ready-made idea, they come out of the past, they’re part of history, and I love history in its simplest, broadest sense. I’m interested in their universal quality – Red Riding Hood, for instance, exists in 300 versions, and was a simple way, in the days when towns were small places surrounded by forests, of telling little girls it was dangerous to go into those forests.’
The depth of his interest is clear in the potent and delightful The Enchanted Pig. ‘Well, there are many stories of women marrying animals. Essentially it’s a warning to young girls that men can have a bestial side and a nice side, and that appearances can be misleading. The Pig changes to a Prince at night, so in bed making love he’s gentle, while the rest of the time he’s a bit of a beast. And it also says you can’t rope a man or he’ll be off, and when he’s off you can’t easily get him back: you have to work at it, even suffer, but having gone through all that it can be better than it was before. I think that’s sound!
‘I do sometimes alter the moral – a Dutch publisher complained to me that The Boy Who Cried Wolf has evil triumphing when the wolf eats everyone. But the boy is a little liar, and the adults indulged in the worst kind of finger-wagging, whereas the wolf is a clean, tidy, honest, wolf-like wolf – there is essential goodness regardless of outer form.’
Today Tony Ross is a highly successful artist whose work, in his own books and other people’s, at times seems ubiquitous, while simultaneously holing a senior lecturer’s post at Manchester Polytechnic. He gave up the headship of the illustration group when he felt he had done it too long, had sat in judgement over too many people, sat in too many meetings instead of teaching. But as a youngster he had never thought of a career in art, and fell into it (he says) only when it seemed he wasn’t up to anything else.
He was born in 1938 in Wandsworth, south London, but moved during the war to Cheshire. He ended up at the Liverpool Regional College of Art after despairing of working with his first love – horses. Cowboy, jockey, mounted policeman – anything to do with horses – these were his dreams; then at 17 he wrote to John Wayne, offering to make his own way over if he could just be in a western. There was no reply. He reckons it’s still the Wayne-syndrome, the dazzle of the stage (father a conjuror, uncles as film extras), that makes him love to put on an act in his talking-and-drawing sessions with groups of kids.
He went into teaching after a bad day in an ad agency, where he was art director, and at first taught in all sorts of areas – design, advertising, typography. At that time he was drawing cartoons in magazines like Punch, Town or Time & Tide. He had seven tiny books accepted by the first publisher he approached, Fabri (later to be Thurman of Mister Men fame), and was introduced by a friend to Abelard & Schuman where he met Klaus Flugge who later, when he was starting up Andersen Press, rang him. Goldilocks was Andersen’s first book, and Flugge and Ross have enjoyed a publishing love affair ever since.
‘So I never had that baptism by fire of trudging stuff round the streets. Klaus is a smashing publisher. He has great sensitivity to how artists feel: it’s a pleasure to work for him because he professes not to understand what you do, saying “Oh, you do it your way,” while on the other hand he understands exactly what you’re doing!’
Tony Ross was the first indication of Flugge’s sure eye for artists of the future – today he’s recognised in dozens of countries and has won a clutch of awards. ‘I love awards! Holland’s Silver Paintbrush’, which he has just won yet again, ‘really is a silver paintbrush and you can keep it. We hoped like mad our Towser films would get an award at BAFTA, even had our speeches worked out…’
It is still a grief to him that his parents cannot share his triumphs. ‘I had dedicated a book to them which was printed in Italy and held up by the dock strike, and my mother died just hours before it got to England – it upset me that she never saw the dedication. My father saw it, but died less than two years later. I’ll always believe it was from a broken heart…’ he pauses, swallows and collects himself. ‘It still gets me, that. He never saw the really better things happen to me, but he saw enough to know I was OK. But who knows, maybe they can see: I always live in hope, which is why I’m concerned with the future not the past.
‘I’m quieter now, not as an artist – as an artist I want to do noisier things – but as a person,’ which is no doubt good news for Zoe, his third wife and very competent business partner. Now, she does read his contracts, although he tells her not to hassle people: it’s the perfect partnership that allows his faith in human nature to stay undented – even when a client skipped the country, because his hard-headed business partner performed miracles of detection and tracked him down.
They live out in the country, Macclesfield way, with Pip, George, Alex and Kate (three girls and a boy ranging from 17 to five), in a renovated Methodist chapel filled with other artists’ work but only one of his – a mounted dragoon of 1840, a copy of a Victorian painting.
Copying great works for that marvellous little guide, the Discoverers Painting, which originated with Gallimard in France, had been fun. ‘Wife with coffee: “What have you done this morning?” “Oh, a Derain and a Michelangelo, but I can’t do Rembrandt!” “You’ve only been trying 20 minutes…” Some were very easy to copy – the old chaps I admire like Michelangelo and Leonardo, and the Magrittes just rolled off – but others were impossible, like Turner and Rembrandt.
‘I did my student thesis on Edward Lear, and had to make a copy of a Lear actually in the library: side by side they were indistinguishable! I must say, forgery did pass through my mind… And once, when I had an art dealer friend come to dinner, I drew a couple of Rowlandsons on brown fly-leaves torn from old books, used brown ink and distressed them, folded them and poured coffee on them, and stuck them behind the clock. She spent the evening trying to buy them off me!’ He dissolves into laughter at the memory.
As soon as he mentions Lear and Rowlandson one can see the natural relationship with his own work. He says he is getting less spiky, that his latest illustrations for Corbett’s The End of the Tale aren’t spiky at all and are unlike anything he’s done before, and that his line drawings change a lot because they are for other, very different, writers. His style is certainly more varied than the slightly frenzied cartoons associated with his name: he illustrated the letter E for the French Gallimard Dictionary and charmed thousands with his collaborations with Bernard Stone. Boisterously, almost impatiently, he experiments and searches for new frontiers. ‘I’m free to do what I like; as a designer and typographer I can control and design and divide my own page. I like the form of a book to do things, the covers and endpapers to add point, make the reader puzzle and be excited.’
He dreams of writing children’s thrillers (but they’d take longer ‘with all the writing and spelling!’); meanwhile he’s done a pop-up with David Pelham and the Towser series of books, strip-cartoon and TV films. Casual party talk with fellow Andersen artist David McKee, of King Rollo, lured him into film-making.
Towser is made by cut paper animation, a sort of flat paper puppet with lots of heads and legs for different positions. Based on nothing but optimistic speculation, the enterprise snowballed from one pilot to three, then six, then a series of 13, and finally a second series. Now Towser is seen in 30 countries (changing his name – he’s Mackintosh in France, Rudolpho in Spain…Rudolpho?) and is on the brink of a marketing bonanza steered by the same company as Postman Pat.
Unexpectedly, he thinks this is a good time for his students to face the world.
‘When jobs were plentiful, illustrators never got work because they were freelance, but when there are fewer jobs, it’s freelances who have the advantage of hope. There’s a lot going on in most forms of illustration now, and its a good time for cavaliering – let’s go to London and give it a crack! My friends left college with a degree which aimed them like an arrow in the direction they should take; I left art college with a much riskier future, but I really enjoyed the “Let’s try this and that” feeling – building sites, chemical factories, laboratories as well as art work. But over three years you get to know your students well, and you do worry about them. I try to make them painfully aware of luck, so they can put a failure down to luck rather than lack of talent.
‘Then I look at their talents and I think, God, if I can do it, they can!’
(published by Andersen Press unless otherwise stated)
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, 0 86264 091 1, £4.95
The Enchanted Pig, 0 86264 002 4, £4.95
The End of the Tale (W J Corbett), Methuen, 0 416 51760 9, £6.50
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, 0 905478 00 2, £4.95; Sparrow, 0 09 929850 3, £1.50 pbk
Lazy Jack, 0 86264 107 1, £4.95
Little Red Riding Hood, 0 905478 37 1, £4.95 (available early 1986); Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.314 5, £1.25 pbk
The Tale of Admiral Mouse (Bernard Stone), 0 86264 009 1, £4.95
Terrible Tuesday (Hazel Townson), 0 86264 098 9, £4.95
Towser and Sadie’s Birthday, 0 86264 049 0, £1.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662359 X, £1.50 pbk
Towser and the Funny Face, 0 86264 077 6, £1.95
Towser and the Haunted House, 0 86264 079 2, £1.95
Towser and the Magic Apple, 0 86264 078 4, £1.95
Towser and the Terrible Thing, 0 86264 050 4, £1.95
Towser and the Water Rats, 0 86264 051 2, £1.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662361 1, £1.50 pbk
This is only a selection from the large number of Tony Ross titles in print.