Much interviewed these days, Anthony Browne would prefer to skip certain questions. ‘Can you comment on the significance of brick walls in your work?’ he was once asked on television. Or, from a German critic intrigued by his punning references to surrealist painters like Magritte, de Chirico and Dali, ‘Why do you steal so much of your humour?’ Remembering these makes him roar with laughter. His grin is a bit more fixed, though, when he has to recount, for the umpteenth time, how he was once bitten by a real-life gorilla – ironically, while making a film to show how fond he is of a creature which often appears in his books. ‘I’ve told that one over and over again,’ he says ruefully.
And duly repeats the story, like the pro he is.
What bothers him about interviews is their tendency to encourage a response that’s merely glib or, worse still, pretentious. Art for Anthony Browne is perfectly normal – even if one of its crucial functions is to help us renew the way we see the world. The freshness of his own vision, and his highly skilled craftsmanship, has already won him both the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Kurt Maschler Award. It’s also brought him a delightful seventeenth-century house, one of the historic buildings of Kent, and a job he freely admits he can’t believe he’s being paid for. ‘I’d do it for nothing if I had to.’
Yet, like many other illustrators, he came to children’s books almost by accident. ‘I couldn’t make enough to live on as the designer of greetings cards and it was a toss-up between children’s books and women’s magazine illustration.’ He’d already worked in advertising and as a medical illustrator, along with two short-lived attempts at becoming a teacher. His first try at a picture-book, moreover, was ‘the wrong size, the wrong shape, the wrong number of pages and basically just derivative’. Luckily, though, Julia MacRae was amongst the first publishers he showed it to and she spotted at once that there were also one or two things he was getting right. He still speaks warmly of her encouragement and good advice and it’s to her that Piggybook, a front-runner for many of this year’s prizes, is dedicated.
Despite this roundabout route, Anthony Browne’s arrival as one of the most original and accomplished of our picture-book artists seems to have been destined from the start. As a child in the fifties, growing up in the Yorkshire village of Hipperholme, near Halifax, he was more conscious of comics and annuals than books. But he drew endlessly. ‘Battles, as much as anything. I used to fill the page with lots and lots of battles – and lots of little figures with plenty of what would now be called surrealistic jokes. Things like a disembodied head with a speech-bubble coming out saying “Aaargh!” In those days I’d use arrows to point at something that was going on in the background and write a label in case I hadn’t drawn it clearly enough – such as “An Invisible Man”, that kind of thing.’
Even though he always knew ‘Art was my best subject,’ his passage through grammar school wasn’t easy. Partly this was due to the low status it had in the academic pecking order, a familiar enough circumstance, and partly to his Art teacher, ‘a classic wide-brush man whose own work in oils was as far removed as it could possibly be from me with my sharp title pencil.’ He passed O-level Art a year early but came bottom in the exam. Having been thwarted in his attempt to take Art, English and Biology at A-level, a combination which would have been very handy for his future employment, he transferred after a year to Leeds Art School.
It was there, embarked on a three-year course in graphic design, that the unthinkable happened. ‘My father died. It was a great shock to me, an incredible shock. This God-like figure I thought would live forever, who I never dreamed would not be there, was suddenly gone. He was a frustrated artist, I suppose, born at the wrong time. From what I can gather his parents always strongly advised him against doing anything artistic because it was unreliable and you couldn’t make a living out of it. Plus being much more difficult to go to art college in those days without grants. So he never actually found out what he wanted to do… but always, in his spare time, he drew – usually for us, my elder brother Michael and me. He didn’t paint pictures and put them in frames and hold exhibitions and stuff, but he used to spend a lot of time with us as children drawing, and playing drawing games.’ Is Anthony Browne to some extent fulfilling his father’s unfulfilled ambition, then? ‘It’s not something I think about but I suppose in a way, yes. If he’d been given the opportunities I had, I’m pretty sure he’d have done something very similar…’
His father’s sudden death affected him greatly. ‘It took me a long time to get over it. As well as the surrealist painters, I was much impressed by Francis Bacon and for ages had this morbid death thing. I was always painting the insides of people showing on the outside, for instance – adolescent stuff, I know.’ Perhaps, but perfect preparation for his subsequent job as a medical illustrator, the official recorder of the intricate goings-on in the operating theatre of a large hospital. But even this wasn’t sufficient exorcism. Later, in the ‘high-pressure, very difficult, very boring, incredibly well paid world of advertising, I still found it very difficult to paint anything happy… I remember I once had to draw this family having a nice time inside a caravan. And I couldn’t! Whatever I did it looked as if something ominous was about to happen, or as if they’d just had a row or were about to stab somebody… I just couldn’t paint a happy picture.’
The cure, amazingly enough, turned out to be greetings cards. He was taken on by Gordon Fraser who ‘taught me how to do happy designs. Eventually I was able to do happy teddy-bears and happy cats. He was always very good to me.’ Not least of the Fraser kindnesses, as it turned out, was his suggestion of a second string to the Browne bow to offset the precariousness of the card market. Why didn’t he take up magazine illustration, perhaps? Or children’s books? Hence Julia MacRae and, in due course, Through the Magic Mirror.
He’s very critical of the book now. ‘In a way it was a fake book. It started the wrong way round. It began with images and was linked with words afterwards. They should both come together ideally.’ Nevertheless it’s been reprinted twice since 1976 and established the Browne hallmarks from the outset: the careful use of colour, the bold draughtsmanship, the gloriously inventive surreal humour. These were developed further in the books that followed – A Walk in the Park, Bear Hunt, Look What I’ve Got, Hansel and Gretel, Bear Goes to Town – all getting increasing critical attention as the distinctive Anthony Browne vision of things established itself. Then, in 1983, came those prizes for Gorilla, his classic account of a small girl’s birthday gift which becomes so much more than a gift.
As with all his books, he’s not sure how Gorilla came about. ‘My audience. I suppose, is always me as a child – the book I’d have liked to have seen as a child. I don’t ever really think “will seven-year-old children in 1987 like this book?” In some unconscious way I tune in to the child I was. I’ve heard Maurice Sendak say similar things and that’s the only awareness of my audience I have… I suppose some vague part of me is aware of what the book is about but I shrink from making the process too self-conscious. It’s why I’m a little wary even of talking about it in case I become pretentious or pompous. The books do come naturally. At any particular time I’ve always got three or four ideas which aren’t quite fully formed in my head. It’s a question of waiting for one of them to come to the surface. I’d find it very difficult to do a book to order – to do a commissioned book, for instance.’
Hence his preference for providing both the words and the pictures himself. Even his book with Sally Grindley, Knock, Knock! Who’s There?, was a curious throwback to a never-published book of his own. ‘That was probably why I took it on in the first place – this idea of opening up a door to see what’s behind it is a recurring dream I’ve had ever since I was a child. Quite inadvertently Sally’s text seemed to tap into this.’ It was the same with The Visitors Who Came to Stay, his book with Annalena McAfee. ‘She’s a very old friend of mine and we worked on it closely together so that the book grew in a very natural kind of way between us – which is very unusual for a separate author and illustrator.’
This growing from within is, quite literally, vital to his approach which is why he firmly denies any propagandist intention behind books of his like Willy the Wimp, Willy the Champ and Piggybook. ‘I couldn’t do an “issues” book if I tried,’ he says. Indeed, critics with a special care for such matters have taken several of his books to task. His updating of Hansel and Gretel, which he set in the 1950s, made one reviewer ask ‘Where are the Social Services?’ and he still recalls wrily the letter he received from a multi-racial educational group in Bedfordshire which accused Willy the Wimp of ‘racism, sexism… and transvestism’. ’Till then it had never crossed my mind that because gorillas have got darker faces than chimpanzees, therefore the gorillas are black and Willy’s white. As for the sexism, I’d concede they have a point in that the only female character in the book is negative, a secondary character. But how does this fit in with the charge that Milly, Willy’s girlfriend, is just a dressed-up male anyway?’ The ambiguous ending to Piggybook (see the car numberplate in that final spread) has also provoked objections yet it’s as much a deliberate joke as the uncanny resemblance between Mrs Piggott, in the book, and his wife Jane, in real life. No one, least of all himself, is exempt from the Anthony Browne humour.
For all his professional enthusiasm, which means that ‘every day I’m raring to get at the drawing-board’, his family in fact comes first. It’s one of the bonuses of working at home. In the summer especially, he’s off to the beach as often as he can with Joseph (4) and Ellen (2), instant recompense for ‘leaving me alone for hours up in my studio’. Currently, having just finished another book with Annalena McAfee, to be published in the autumn, he’s been spending those hours on one of the few texts he can remember from his own childhood. It’s a project his many admirers look forward to with special interest. What better stimulus could there be for the quirky, arresting talent of Anthony Browne than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland?
(hardbacks from Hamish Hamilton or Julia MacRae)
Through the Magic Mirror, HH, 0 241 89307 0, £5.95
A Walk in the Park, HH, 0 241 89397 6, £5.95
Bear Hunt, HH, 0 241 89921 4, £4.95; Hippo, 0 590 70090 1, £1.50 pbk
Look What I’ve Got, JM, 0 86203 004 8, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 95940 7, £1.95 pbk
Hansel and Gretel, JM, 0 86203 042 0, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 60590 7, £1.95 pbk
Bear Goes to Town, HH, 0 241 10817 9, £5.95; Beaver, 0 09 932040 1, £2.50 pbk
Gorilla, JM, 0 86203 104 4, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 52460 5, £1.95 pbk
Knock, Knock! Who’s There?, Sally Grindley, HH, 0 241 11559 0, £5.50
The Visitors Who Came to Stay, Annalena McAfee, HH, 0 241 11224 9, £5.95; 0 241 12018 7, £3.50 pbk
Willy the Wimp, JM, 0 86203 175 3, £5.25; Magnet, 0 416 53230 6, £1.95 pbk
Willy the Champ, JM, 0 86203 215 6, £5.25; Magnet, 0 416 95930 X, £1.95 pbk
Piggybook, JM, 0 86203 268 7, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 01292 2, £1.95 pbk (Sept 87)
Photographs by Richard Mewton.