The first thing you notice about Victor Ambrus is the amazing intensity of his eyes. A mild, milky blue colour, they positively glow even when Victor is not especially animated and they become increasingly intense as he warms to talking about his work and his background.
Victor Ambrus lives in an attractive, new-old cottage in Surrey set in a large sloping garden backed by woods. His house is called Amen Cottage so I had to ask whether it was named as a tribute to Amen House, the long-standing London headquarters of the Oxford University Press, Victor’s main publishers.
`That’s right. Yes,’ agreed Victor. When I first went to see Miss George, I was very impressed by this leaning, eighteenth-century house. Every window was skew-whiff. It was very elegant and very nice so, when we got this cottage and we discovered that it had these Gothic shaped, ecclesiastical windows like Amen House, we named the cottage after it.’
This act of piety is typical of the courtesy and charm that characterise Victor. Gently spoken, he is the kind of illustrator who understands just how much good illustration adds to any story and exactly how professional any illustrator must be to provide that.
The very fact that he always refers to Mabel George, Oxford’s powerful children’s editor in the 1950s and 1960s, as `Miss George’ gives him an old fashioned air and there is, indeed, something pleasingly `old fashioned’ about him. He has, for example, remained steadfastly loyal to working for the Oxford University Press through a number of editorial changes. But, it is not only that he is old-fashioned. For some reason people always think that he is far older than he actually is. Whether it is his name or the images which his illustrations create, people’s response when you mention his name is that he must be `very old by now’.
In fact, Victor came to England in 1956, a refugee from the Russian invasion of Hungary. Already in his third year as a student at the Budapest school of art, he fled from the horror of the atrocities he had witnessed, an experience which he describes emotionally and expressively but with delicacy and discretion. On reaching Austria, Victor and fellow art students who had travelled with him, had the choice of where to move on to. Victor chose England, recognising that it would be a good place to continue his study of illustration, and duly arrived at Blackbush airport in Surrey in December 1956. It was, he says, an extreme culture shock.
`Farnham was a very good place in which to recuperate from my depression about Hungary. In a way the whole thing was terribly unreal. I arrived in December, just before Christmas, at this little town, and there were twinkly lights and Christmas trees and I just couldn’t put the two together. I came out of the smoke and rubble and a whole town smashed up systematically. I just couldn’t get over the contrast.’
Somehow, despite speaking no English, Victor managed to discover that there was an art college `just over the hill’ from his refugee camp. He presented himself at Farnham Art School and was immediately taken on, not to follow any particular course but to work away at his drawing. Victor was already an accomplished artist and had specialised in graphics, concentrating largely on engraving and lithography which, as he says, was an excellent training for line illustration. The Principal of Farnham was quick to recognise that Victor was ready for a higher level of study and so, after only two terms, he directed him to the Royal College of Art in London.
`It was nice to get back to some drawing, because after ’56 I just didn’t think that I would ever do any again. When I started drawing in Farnham I did some desperately depressing things; I could still find some of my lithographs of the horrors I’d left behind.’
Considering that Victor had just described in the most precise detail (reflecting just how vivid those memories still are) how he and fellow students had been besieged in the art school building and had only managed to escape because a small group had held the Russian soldiers at bay, to say that `it was nice to get back to some drawing’ seemed something of an understatement. But Victor is full of understatement, especially about his own talent. At the Royal College he studied engraving and lithography, and met his wife Glenys, who was then a fellow student and is now a fellow illustrator. Victor is too modest to say that he became a ‘Royal Scholar’ in 1958, but he did, winning a well-deserved award for his brilliantly executed work.
The now familiar Ambrus style is a reflection of the two trainings which he received. `I have never shed my early training in Budapest. By the time you are about 21, your tastes and style are largely formed,’ he says. `But the Royal College certainly loosened me up.’
He had been brought up on the classic English illustrators such as E H Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, Tenniel’s Alice and Arthur Rackham’s distinctive and extensive illustrations to a wide range of stories including Alice and Peter Pan. Victor has retained his early affection for the clarity of line that was so prevalent in his formative years and his own line drawings reflect that commitment.
Even while at college he took some samples of his work to Blackie who gave him his first job. In those days, the Royal College took rather a dim view of students finding work, drawing for money. It was not, as Victor says, `the done thing’. `In fact, if you did some work for a company you got publicly reprimanded. Now, it is the complete opposite; they can’t get involved with, outside people enough.’
His first real job on leaving college was to work for an advertising agency. `It was an excellent discipline for me. You had deadlines, you had to complete jobs under pressure. It wasn’t very creative, but I did a lot in a short time. As my freelance work was also beginning to pick up quite a bit, after two years I went back to Farnham and started teaching at the Art School while doing illustration part-time.’
Like many illustrators, Victor started by doing line illustrations for novels. Miss George at Oxford gave him first Hester Burton’s and then K M Peyton’s novels to illustrate. Both used his talent for drawing horses and with both he built up a happy working relationship.
Having Victor as an illustrator must be quite a treat for any author. He is meticulous in his research- he tells a wonderful story of hiring a horse so that he could see what it would he like riding into battle, cutting and slashing with a sword. Supplying his own sword (surprisingly for such a mild man, his passion is weaponry of all kinds), he set off into the neighbouring woods and terrified an artist sheltering under a tree as he swung a massive blow against its trunk.
He is also very aware that `a good manuscript will produce good drawings’. Victor has done his own picture books but knows that he is not really `a writer’ adding, mildly but obviously with feeling, that writers and illustrators should each stick to their own. As an established and successful illustrator (he has won the Kate Greenaway medal twice, once in 1965 for Three Poor Tailors and again, a decade later, for Mishka and Horses in Battle, and is internationally recognised and appreciated, particularly in America), some of his favourite projects have been working on adaptations of classics of one kind and another. His imaginative ‘Dracula’ stories are especially dear to his heart as is the challenge he faced in illustrating Geraldine McCaughrean’s versions of The Canterbury Tales and El Cid.
The strength of such epics provides Victor with enormous scope for his dynamic and vibrant illustrations. In The Canterbury Tales he captures the salient characteristics of each of the pilgrims, giving them immediate and dramatic child appeal. He loves both the need for attention to detail that is demanded by anything with an historical background, and visual and verbal humour of all kinds which is perhaps why his zany `Dracula’ and `Blackbeard’ cartoon stories are so successful. Victor’s style appears comic, his line is light, and his interpretation and vision are benevolent but, as a result of all he witnessed in Hungary, he is more able than most to give frighteningly realistic images of violence and death.
‘I enjoy deep drama and serious historical subjects, but I think it is important to bring light relief to them from time to time. All illustration is an extension of yourself. You have to feel what your characters are feeling and understand about their lives which is why research is also so vital.’ Victor then recounts working on a book about slaves in Egypt building the Pyramids: `I had to understand the heat, the terribly hard work, and the importance of the thing they were building.’ Victor’s attention to capturing this kind of detail about feelings is matched by his attention to detail in drawing whether it’s animals, people or landscapes. He still does a great deal of life drawing to keep himself going. `You put something of yourself into every illustration so it’s important to refresh yourself all the time so that you never dry up.’
With over 70 books to his credit, a world-wide reputation secured and a pile of new projects lined up, Victor Ambrus does not look to be in danger of drying up. He works hard, beginning quickly and explosively and then taking ages over the detail. This technique is reflected in his illustrations which are immediately attractive but which also repay close and careful study. The experiences of his formative years will always influence his work and his thinking. `I am,’ he says, `Hungarian. But, the Americans enjoy my books because, they say, they are full of English humour.’
How lucky we are to have Victor Ambrus as an ambassador for our humour around the world.
Photographs by Lucy Rogers
Some of Victor Ambrus’s many titles are listed here. All are published by Oxford University Press.
The Canterbury Tales (ed. Geraldine McCaughrean), 019 278109 X, £9.95; 019 278123 5, £5.95 pbk
El Cid (Geraldine McCaughrean), 0 19 276077 7, £8.95
Pinocchio (retold by James Riordan), 019 279855 3, £7.95
Dracula, 0 19 279746 8, £6.95; 0 19 2721216, £3.95 pbk
Dracula’s Late-Night TV Show, 019 279870 7, £6.95
Count Dracula, 0 19 279900 2, £4.95; 0 19 272238 7, £2.50 pbk
What’s the Time, Dracula?, 0 19 2799010, £4.95; 0 19 272239 5, £2.50 pbk
Blackbeard the Pirate, 019 2797719, £5.95; 019 272220 4, £3.95 pbk
His latest book, Gulliver’s Travels, retold by James Riordan, is published in July (0 19 279897 9, £9.95) and is featured on our front cover.