Once, long ago, Patrick Campbell told me no one talked in semi-colons, though a week later I decided Robert Robinson did. Some, like Babette Cole, talk in exclamation marks, and nearly all of us talk in dashes.
Barbara Firth talks in dot-dot-dots. The tracks of her sentences fade and break off, leaving her suspended for a moment before leaping on board a thought coming up from behind, riding with it briefly before it too trails away as it senses a stronger idea approaching, a back-up explanation, a flashback . . . Not incoherent (for the listener, without conscious thought, fills in the gaps), it is somehow endearing to hear the falls of her northern voice hang softly in the air.
There is gentleness all about her. A specially set bird-pudding greets a robin making his regular visit into the kitchen, before it is unmoulded on a shed roof for the sparrows; every sill of the little semi-detached is crammed with plant cuttings; upstairs a dog, predominantly Airedale, soulfully complains at being kept out of the way; two Elizabethan-ruffed budgies, whose chirpy gossip fills the house, have the freedom of what must have been once the dining room, shared only with Waldo. a tortoise of sixty-plus years emerging for spring into a carefully lamp-warmed run together with two fellow refugees – no one could be convinced that Barbara and her sister long to be rid of the lot of them but people insist on rescuing them and bringing them round.
She is unassuming to a degree, the only artist I’ve met who has nothing whatsoever of her own work on her walls -‘I would have thought they’d seen enough of it by the time they’d finished’. Only her bronze Emil stands quietly on a sideboard (‘I love the back of his head’).
She frets over her blocks. ‘I’m confident about all the stages of pencil-work, but suddenly the day comes when you must put the water-colour on. Well, if you make a mess of that you’ve got to redraw the whole thing – so I’m pretty well stuck, and find I’m tying up plants in the garden. That’s what has just happened with the dummy for Sam Vole and His Brothers for Bologna (the international children’s book fair, and another collaboration with Martin Waddell). I managed to get the sketches together, but reached the stage when I had only two days to finish a couple of examples of artwork, and still I left it till I had just 24 hours and I had to go upstairs, wishing I could go back to knitting diagrams.’
Knitting diagrams, or the like, have taken up most of her working life, with picture book illustrating a late flowering in what might otherwise have been a plain kitchen allotment. ‘I don’t believe in “creativity”. Everything throughout life goes into little filing drawers in your head, and nothing new comes out – whatever you do is a product of what you are. I have a basic idea of what I want to do when I’m drawing, but it seems as if I’m just watching what happens, and it’s more a process of rejection: the pencil, maybe by accident, goes in a certain way – it’s nothing I’ve done – and it’s quite remarkable, you recognise that’s the expression you wanted. Whatever you do, whatever paper you pick up, has its own rules: you have to obey what the paper wants, what the pencil or brush dictates. The drawing happens because your body’s used to the technicalities of working, like using any kind of tool, but all the time I’m only watching what’s happening, perhaps rejecting and discarding but it’s nothing to do with me – sometimes I laugh, really laugh, at what’s happening.
‘Acting helps – I belonged to a good group at the YMCA Central – where you can imagine emotions or your own body making certain movements. When Barnabas (in William Mayne’s Barnabas Walks) was reading E, I was going “Ee-ee-ee” into the mirror – so many people liked that drawing I had to keep doing it and giving it away! As I work characters become more real, start to get set in their own situation and behaviour, and things around them become more possible – like the man-toy of Little Bear.
‘Mysterious, quiet places, the contrast of light and dark, move me. On a school visit – no, I don’t do many, no one’s wanted me before! – a little boy in a crowd round my feet said, “How do you draw dark?” I thought that was marvellous. Children love any kind of drawing and the wonder on their faces makes me feel humble – that sounds soppy, but kids focus on me as the source of a magic that’s nothing to do with me.’
As a child Barbara drew all the time, but, unassertive as ever, came crabwise to art as a career. She proudly relishes her family background, strong Yorkshire stock of farmers and blacksmiths. Born in 1928, growing up in Hyde, Cheshire, where her father, brought down by the Depression, had taken a secure job on the railways, she recalls the blacksmith’s behind their railway house, frequent visits to uncles’ farms, and vast Sunday walks into Derbyshire. ‘It’s amazing what you take in of work action and movement – the movement of animals attracts me more than anything, and I probably started drawing them because of my father’s love and knowledge of horses.’
Her father, her junior school and secondary art master all encouraged her drawing, but the Head would not even allow Art among her leaving exams. Following her friends, she parroted ‘Civil Service’ as a career choice, but after six months pricing telegrams in Manchester fled to join Marks and Spencer in London, first junior clerking in Head Office, then training in cutting, design, patterns and show cards.
She stayed seven years before ‘I got too big for my boots and went in search of greater things’ with a studio designing displays for outside cinemas, painted heads and excerpts from films. She was not there long -‘Let’s put it bluntly, I was awful and got the sack after six months.’ Answering a Vogue ad for an art assistant, ‘which I thought very peculiar – not something you see every day’, she was taken as a junior in the production department, where ‘with one thing and another’, she stayed 15 years, by the end doing a lot of freelance knitting and crochet instruction diagrams on the quiet. ‘Soul-destroying, but a skill in its way, for you do have to know what you’re doing.’ Off and on she took night school classes, suddenly deciding at 40 on a four-year foundation course that introduced much-needed discipline to her instinctive art.
The editor of The Vogue Knitting Book, Pam Dawson, in 1970 joined Fabbri, an Italian firm doing art repro books in Britain which moved into partworks of crafts like knitting, later evolving into Marshall Cavendish’s Golden Hands. Barbara followed with a few diagrams, and found that ‘if you take trouble and finish on time, put up with what they want and not be temperamental, you get recommended’. Her parents had come to live in this present Wealdstone house; when her widowed mother became ill, she and her sister moved in until her death in 1979 – and are still there, muttering about the lack of space (not surprising, given the wildlife) – so it was essential to continue freelancing, in spite of a permanent offer.
‘Throughout life, there’s a balance in what you do and what you want to do that turns out right. Nursing my mother proved most revealing of myself; I drew her a lot, and much of my observation of the figure came from her. One always tends, especially in fashion drawing, to go for beautiful things, and then you’re made to look at the figure of a helpless person, or perhaps someone old, with twisted hands, and there’s this marvellous shape you would never ordinarily have seen.’
Advanced dressmaking for Golden Hands was followed by Crafts and Grow Your Own magazines (‘planting beetroot, etc’). Soon people leaving Marshall Cavendish were calling from all over the place, among them art director Amelia Edwards, who was now working with Sebastian Walker at his Highbury home, producing books on nature, on growing herbs, or kites. Barbara stayed with Walker as he expanded from one converted factory to the next, specialising in lifelike, very tight, drawings of pot plants, insects and small animals, researching Mexican orange-kneed spiders in a hot backroom of the London Zoo or pickled tarantulas in the Natural History Museum.
A nudge in direction produced Park Animals and Country Animals in the Zebra series, and then came an offer to illustrate the Great Escape stories of David Lloyd himself (‘a wonderful editor’), resulting in her favourite picture – Jack the dog saying goodbye to Angel. ‘My style started to get more lively: now I can be too exuberant, but once I’d found it was acceptable to draw in that way, there was no holding me. It worked, didn’t it?’ she adds with wonder.
Yes, it did. Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, Smarties and Emil prizewinner, works in 18 languages, and, though neither she nor Martin Waddell believed there should be another (‘you don’t get that sort of truth too often’), it works again in Let’s Go Home, Little Bear.
And it worked in her own favourite, The Park in the Dark – a book which, although ‘whatever Martin gives me to do allows all sorts of hidden things to come out’ (writer and artist converge only indirectly through an editor), proves to owe more to her than any reader could guess. The Three (Me and Loopy and Little Gee -‘three aspects of one child’) had been at first children, then squirrels (‘my heart sank – three of anything’s bad enough to characterise, but specially furry things – I’ve got three voles at the moment!’). Toys? Finally home-made toys, suggested by an ancient pair she’d bought at a church jumble, not bearing to think of them separated. The monster is never stated (‘drops me in some terrible messes, does Martin’): what could run beside them all the way home? Dog, old tramp? But children must be able to say, Silly old things! Deciding on a train led to hours in a field by South Kenton station with her camera, catching the right angle on the archway -‘The drivers must have thought I was mad.’
And now? ‘A book takes about six months, and I can only think of one at a time. I need to feel a big space inside that’s undisturbed, so I try not to think about what’s happening tomorrow – even doing something that evening destroys the space in my mind. I’ve not thought about the future, any more than I thought in the past about what might happen: I just live life as it presents itself.’
All the following books have been illustrated by Barbara Firth and are published by Walker:
Barnabas Walks, William Mayne, 0 7445 1352 9, £2.99 pbk
‘Quack!’ said the billy-goat, Charles Causley, 0 7445 0479 1, £5.99; 0 7445 1442 8, £2.99 pbk
The Munro’s New House, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 0 7445 0567 4, £5.99; 0 7445 1452 5, £2.99 pbk
The Grumpalump, Sarah Hayes, 0 7445 1506 8, £7.99
We Love Them, Martin Waddell, 0 7445 1278 6, £6.99; 0 7445 1774 5, £2.99 pbk
The Park in the Dark, Martin Waddell, 0 7445 0716 2, £7.99; 0 7445 1740 0, £3.99 pbk
Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, Martin Waddell, 0 7445 0796 0, £7.99; 0 7445 1316 2, £3.99 pbk; 0 7445 19314, £2.99 mini edition
Let’s Go Home, Little Bear, Martin Waddell, 0 7445 1912 8, £8.99
Sam Vole and His Brothers is scheduled for publication in 1992.