‘I suppose that’s my niche really. A certain ability at draughtsmanship, an interest in history and a plodding work ethic.’
Hardly how I would have thought of Stephen Biesty whose finely drawn, exquisitely detailed ‘cross-section’ books have had such a profound effect on the look of contemporary information books and whose very first book, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections, sold over a million copies.
But Stephen is genuinely unassuming and modest. It’s not that he doesn’t know how good his books are. He does, and he’s delighted they’ve given pleasure to thousands of children. He has a healthy mailbag of letters from both adults and children and was especially touched recently when asked by a hospital for very sick children in Illinois if they could use his illustrations for their walls. They’d found that looking at his pictures had provided such a good way for children and their parents to talk together.
He says that as ‘a non-fiction illustrator I’ve been very lucky. I don’t expect this level of success to continue.’ His modesty lies in the fact that he makes no claims for being more than a very serious worker. ‘I know it’s a cliche but my work is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. It’s unglamorous being an illustrator. It’s mostly a question of work.’ And that Stephen certainly does. His work area occupies one end of the Biestys’ beautiful Somerset cottage – an old school house nestling right under the church. The school room has been bisected by a floor to make bedrooms above and an elegant sitting room below. Stephen’s work end has his library, an essential source of reference, on the ground floor and his studio, with a breathtaking view of the church, above.
For all the busyness of his illustrations he’s a naturally tidy person. A perfectionist who hates clutter and disorder – ‘I try to confine my tendency to be very thorough to my work; I wouldn’t want it to spin into other aspects of my life’ – his studio is immaculate with no distracting illustrations on the wall or noticeboard, merely some functional information such as, most importantly, Dorling Kindersley’s phone and fax numbers.
It was Dorling Kindersley who revolutionised Biesty’s life by giving him the opportunity to turn his passion for detailed historical illustration into a lucrative professional commitment. Stephen’s love of history combined with his training in art at Brighton Art School and capped by an MA in graphic design concentrating on historical reconstruction, had given him the idea that he might work somewhere like the National Trust or English Heritage. But sticking to the architectural side alone he soon found limiting: ‘there was no freedom of expression and everything was on an extremely modest budget.’
Seeing no rewarding employment there, Stephen ‘drifted into adult publishing and then children’s publishing, just to find work’. The drifting only implies that it happened by chance. There’s nothing uncommitted or casual about his attitude. It was the quality of his illustrations for Mitchell Beasley and Octopus that brought him to the attention of DK who took him on for their new project. Stephen was a clever find and, given that he likes to produce very detailed, labour-intensive illustrations, it was a stroke of incredible good fortune for him that he ended up working on something where the volume of sales can easily justify the 18 months to two years each book takes.
The process for the cross-sections is a complex one. He insists they’re very much a group enterprise. ‘I was puzzled at the beginning why they needed to put my name across the top of it. I mean, it’s not just me. There are lots of people involved in these books, seven or eight at least. Like many DK projects, Peter Kindersley had been turning over the idea of doing such a book for a long time.’
As a child, Stephen had been influenced by the cut-through artwork of Lesley Ashwell Wood in Eagle, rather on its last legs when Stephen was a boy in the 1960s. His curiosity for this kind of illustration fitted in well with Kindersley’s ideas for books of cross-sections and both clearly enjoyed poring over an old copy of Eagle which Stephen tracked down.
‘On individual projects, the idea for the books comes from DK and then I put flesh on the bones. They’re illustration led, with seven stages before the finished colour artwork is added. I start by getting together a lot of reference material. I go to libraries, bookshops, museums and collect as much information as possible before I begin drawing. Then DK and Richard Platt (the author) come up with other pieces of information and I add on. It doesn’t matter how much you put in. The readers seem to love more and more detail.’
Driven by his own love of history, Biesty spends hours on research to get everything just right. ‘I’m interested in social history, especially the eighteenth century so I liked getting across the feeling of how people lived in Man-of-War. Lots of them enjoyed being at sea because they were properly fed and had plenty to drink. Life on the land was very poor, you have to remember. There are some nasty things that happened, too. When I put in gory bits, I make sure they’re in context. It would be wrong to gloss over them. It brings out how different life was in those days. I like to put in extras that the reader wouldn’t necessarily expect – humorous touches like people on the toilet. I have great fun with the schoolboy jokes.’
Stephen’s enthusiasm for his subjects is infectious and he’s clear he couldn’t bring the same integrity to subjects that didn’t interest him. Modern warfare, for example, has been suggested as an obvious topic and it would clearly be appealing but, for him, it lacks the human ingredient he so much enjoys.
Ideas that do appeal to him are concerned with looking at one place and how you can strip back the layers to find one bit of history piled on top of another, or considering the world through a magnifying glass to show things in ever greater detail. Always, for Biesty, it’s the detail that fascinates.
His interest in social history has also shaped the kind of artists whose work appeals to him. ‘My early influences were Hogarth, Bruegel and Bosh. I loved their fantastic crowd scenes because they’re full of character and humour. On the film side, it was the great epics such as El Cid that really inspired me. They were teeming with life and visually exciting.’ All Stephen’s illustrations share that quality of ‘teeming with life’. ‘I want to know how people lived. The minutiae of their lives such as cooking, clothes, beds. I’m an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to history and I think I’m interested at a child’s level.’
Research provides him with the knowledge to draw his subjects accurately and he believes it’s because some of his imitators lack the ability to invest their books with historical value that they’ve been less successful. ‘If there’s no depth or extra details, it’s hard for children to be drawn in,’ he claims. But, it’s also his style of illustration that makes the looking so easy. He’s drawn since he was a child, always concentrating on cathedrals and castles, while his elder brother drew cars and aeroplanes. Despite the attention to detail, the illustrations are never formal or stiff. ‘Children seem to find drawings that look a bit hand done more appealing … I certainly do, and I never wanted to be an airbrush artist.’ But the hand done, lightness of touch isn’t produced quickly or easily, however homespun it may look.
Biesty’s work schedule is demanding and highly disciplined. Committing yourself to a two-year project and not allowing yourself to become distracted along the way is a challenge most would find daunting. Stephen drives himself hard. ‘I work for five days a week now,’ he says, apologising because some artists in London apparently work six or seven. ‘I always start by eight-thirty and I finish around half-past-five.’ He has no interruptions apart from a quick lunch with his wife, Liz, and three-year-old Richard. ‘Liz is my first critic. I need her fresh eye on things sometimes.’ But Liz and Richard never interrupt and it’s clear that Stephen doesn’t waste time on anything outside the project in hand. He goes to London rarely, relying on phone calls and faxes whenever possible. When the research is done, his mind is on the artwork, which, for each of the big cross-sections books, goes through the stages of design drawings, flow-charts, layouts, drawings, alterations, inking-in, artwork and then a staggering 14 weeks on the endpapers alone.
The detail is all done with propelling pencil and then, when it’s right, gone over in rotary pen. The rich tones of the watercolours are added on top so the lines can remain visible. He uses one sheet of paper for the whole process, preferring it to fiddling with overlays. ‘I’m methodical and I hate working in a rush. I like to work to a regime and to keep on schedule. Of course, working on your own can be isolating, but I’ve grown used to it.’
And it’s clear from the quiet satisfaction in his work he radiates, transferring his relish for accuracy into visual treats for the reader, that his professional privacy is far more of a pleasure than a torment.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Stephen Biesty’s books are all published by Dorling Kindersley:
Incredible Cross-Sections, 0 86318 807 9, £12.99
Cross-Sections Man-of-War, 0 7513 5045 1, £12.00
Cross-Sections Castle, 0 7513 5046 X, £12.99
(the above three titles were written by Richard Platt)
Incredible Pop-Up Cross-Sections, 0 7513 5342 6, £9.99