`I can’t tell if being a mother has influenced me. I know I love the shape of little children. I can stare at them for hours – I love their little limbs, little arms, little bums.’
But it was in fact the birth of Helen Oxenbury’s own children that directed this much loved best-seller of the nursery towards book illustration of any kind. She was expecting her first child (now 24 and herself at Manchester School of Art), watching husband John Burningham doing Borka and its successor, needing money and wondering what on earth to do, when a friend of theirs – who happened to be Jan Pienkowski of Gallery Five – suggested she did some Christmas cards.
He followed up with the notion that she might tackle a book -‘an ABC or a counting book, where you don’t have to worry about the text, something you can do at home.’ Numbers of Things was at once accepted by Heinemann, and she’s never stopped since. (John won the Kate Greenaway with Borka; five years later so did Helen, with illustrations for Lear and Margaret Mahy.)
Such small-scale, table-top work was a far cry from her earlier life. Her architect father became town planner for East Suffolk, and she was brought up in Felixstowe, on the Suffolk coast. `We still have a boathouse right on the estuary: a lot of people; think it’s bleak, but I love that scenery – the clear light, the strip of land, the huge sky, the wheeling birds and the mudflats – oh, it’s wonderful! The freedom that I and my brother, three years older, had was idyllic compared with today’s children – we’d leave home in the mornings and not be seen or worried about till the evening meal.’
Only weekends and holidays like this allowed her to survive her Ipswich school – prim, all girls and very Victorian. `I was absolutely miserable: they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them.’ Her parents had struggled to send her there; a few miles away, her future husband (all unaware) was at A S Neill’s Summerhill at Sizewell, which she’s sure she’d have loved. (Could there be something about this coast to have produced, simultaneously though unknown to each other, Oxenbury, Burningham and Michael Foreman?)
`That school never caught my interest academically – perhaps art was the only thing I was good at. But Ipswich Art School was a whole new ballgame. It was like square-bashing – my goodness, you had to work – but I enjoyed it enormously: you were treated like an adult. And every holiday I used to do the menial tasks, like mixing paints and putting on base colours, in the Ipswich Repertory Theatre workshop. I loved it, and after two years thought I’d specialise in theatre design.
`I applied to the Central School in London, but didn’t enjoy it like Ipswich. I had to do costume design – needlework, and how things are cut to get the look of the period – but I always got involved in how the people would look, and used to concentrate on their faces! One tutor said, “This is hopeless, you know. You ought to go and do illustration – you’re more interested in the character and we don’t know who’s going to play the part!”
`It didn’t click even then. I struggled on, sold on all the jolly times I’d had in the theatre at Ipswich.’ After two years she became an assistant designer at Colchester Rep. at £7 a week. `Now that was hard work – a play a week, a new set for each – but very interesting. We did the actual painting in a huge great warehouse: used to get frozen!’
But at the Central she’d met John. He’d gone out to Israel, where she now joined him as an au pair and teaching English conversation. `I got work as assistant to the designer at the Habimah Theatre in Tel Aviv, unbelievably new and splendid. There wasn’t that much competition then in Israel for set designers (I bet there is now), and I was given whole sets to do, with huge backdrops – it was I who had the assistant then!’
She was in Israel three years, off and on, and returned to a brief nine months with ABC TV at Teddington. Shepperton film studios followed – great fun. `It was Judy Garland’s last film – Carry On Singing? No, hardly … (actually, I Could Go On Singing) – and though I was totally insignificant, one of a huge team, I loved looking into the studios.’
She married John, and that was the end of the theatrical design. Exit huge backdrops; enter books for babies’ hands.
`I began with pen and crayon because they’re so easy to carry around (what a terrible reason!); when my first two were little we had a tiny flat, and a box of crayons, a pen and a bottle of ink take up little space. I did Pig Tale in gouache, then moved on to watercolour; I want to try something else now, and am experimenting to see what I’m comfortable with.
,The difficulty with watercolour is that by its very nature you can’t work on top of it – if you go wrong you have to scrap it and start again.’ We spoke of the new problem confronting illustrators who like to work on card – watercolourists particularly, because of its effect on paper – when modern printing processes demand that the paper layer is peeled off. `For Brian Alderson’s Cakes and Custard I used crayon and pen on “fashion-plate” board (very shiny so won’t take water), and when the shiny paper was peeled off it wrecked the whole thing. Might as well write it off. I shan’t do that again!’
Analyse an Oxenbury face and it seems just eye-dots and a line, but this results from a thousand trial-runs. `I enjoy trying to get expression with the minimum of line, though my early stuff was much more detailed – lips, eyelids, shading and hatching. Neither style is necessarily better – I may even change and go back. I love black and white line, but you come up against, the sales force, who always want colour. You should have heard the “Oh-what-a-shame-it’s-black-and- white” for Bear Hunt: if you do a cover that’s limited in colour or black and white, they say it must be colour to stand out – but of course everyone else is in colour. Because the design team at Walker are brilliant, and they were all for having it as a drawing on the cover, we succeeded between us – but there was quite a resistance.’
Like so many who feel Sebastian Walker changed the whole climate for artists (and not only by his rates of pay), she slips easily into a paean of praise.
`They listen to you at Walker – I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air it was to be able to thrash things out with a designer! Nothing is too much trouble for Amelia Edwards, the design director. I can go in with an idea, or two, or three, and she’ll say, “Helen, we’ll try each way and see how they look.” So often publishers say, “That’s it,” and off it goes to the design department; and you don’t see it till it comes back, and then it’s “Well, it’s done now – sorry…
`Sebastian has always said it’s his artists and writers who make the books – without them there is nothing. I believe he’s even started a creche for his young mums. Simply, he’s a genius: he’s got it right!’
The Burninghams live on the edge of Hampstead Heath, having `circulated around the area’ since John’s student days, in a splendidly idiosyncratic house that feels part baronial, part sunny farmhouse, overlooking a vast un-London garden. Like his older sister, their son is also at art school (Winchester), though they have great hopes that 11-year-old Emily will do something else… She’ll have to be very determined, sandwiched between John’s studio at garden level and Helen’s up at the top of the house.
`It’s John’s flair that has made the house amazing. You see it now and you think, cor blimey!, but when we bought it, about 12 years ago, no one would have given tuppence for it. He loves architecture, goes to demolition sites, etc. and totally transforms everything.’
They were about to fly to France that afternoon, where a soft toy of Pippo, after years of problems and discussion (horrible velvet or washable, cuddly towelling? how to get the eyes sewn on straight? should the head be moulded?), is drawing near to actual production. Tom and his little monkey Pippo originated when the French, great magazine readers, for the first time started one for tinies, and asked her to create two characters, one of which would become a toy. Her five pages for the magazine turned easily into a book, and the series has become phenomenally successful. The same French company is talking of involving her in an animated film: very exciting.
She’s open to any future idea, child or adult, and wistful that Emily’s age group is now out of illustrated books. She enjoys working on texts by other writers, but couldn’t work with them. `The last one, Bear Hunt, was marvellous because it gave the illustrator so much – the characters were never defined in the text – but I had never met Michael Rosen until the actual Smarties Prize party. We know a few people from our world, but we’re not “clubby”.’ Indeed, she’s well-known as a quiet soul who shrinks from self-exposure, a reputation at odds with the sense of exuberance, of the joyful muddle of everyday life, in her work. She recognises at once a text she’ll be comfortable with, rejecting hundreds on the way. The recipe also applies to her own books.
`It must have humour and be true to life – it can deal with a child’s fantasy and still be rooted in things that are true. Above all, I look for warmth and humour – and characters that aren’t absolutely wonderful and lovely!’ And that’s a recipe for not only a good book, but a good mum, too.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Some of Helen Oxenbury’s many books
Numbers of Things, Heinemann, 0 434 95595 7, £6.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662783 8, £2.25 pbk
Pig Tale, Heinemann, 0 434 95599 X, £5.95
Nursery Story Book, Heinemann, 0 434 95602 3, £8.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673382 4, £3.99 pbk
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen, Walker, 0 7445 1135 6, £9.95
Tom and Pippotitles, Walker, £5.95 each hbk; £2.50 each pbk
First Picture Books, Walker, £3.95 each hbk; £1.99 each pbk