‘I don’t really draw for children or with children in mind at all,’ says Philippe Dupasquier. ‘This is a book for families. A lot of my books are inspired by families.’ He’s talking about I Can’t Sleep which is a personal favourite of mine. Harder-edged than Jan Ormerod’s Moonlight and with a greater range of mood than Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, which both occupy similar territory, I Can’t Sleep is also much funnier than either.
Of course, its pages are full of his own family. For a start, the illustrator at the centre of the wordless plot has more than a passing resemblance to Philippe himself. Also, clearly, the children are modelled on his children Timothy and Sophie, then aged ten and six respectively; and the wonderful Mum-figure, a benign umpire of all the small hours shenanigans can’t be a million miles from his wife Sylvie – whose importance to Philippe’s life and career he acknowledges with a warmth and openness that’s tempered with genuine self-doubt about his own ability to do artistic justice to people who mean so much to him. ‘Look at this picture,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘It’s awful.’
He’s referring to a splendid vignette of Mum, arms folded in a doorway, sleepily investigating what’s going on. The crook of her hip beneath the dressing gown looks just right to me, as does her quizzical expression. Not to Philippe, though, for whom the posture isn’t quite definitive … which is when I notice the small mirror propped at the back of his worktable (so he can catch the exact turn of a head or slump of a shoulder) or the much longer one against his studio wall (to help him depict the precise angle of a body). Behind the bold, easily-assimilated images of an illustrator for whom accessibility and lack of pretension are watchwords, lies an integrity which shines through everything he does.
Admittedly, Art was probably in his bones when he was born. He grew up in Dijon, Burgundy, the son of an electronics salesman who travelled a great deal so it was Philippe’s mother who brought up Renaud, now a forester in Switzerland, and Beatrice, an executive in Paris, with Philippe the classic kid-in-the-middle. ‘Academically,’ he claims, ‘I wasn’t very bright – let’s face it, I’m still not very bright! – and I really suffered at school. Drawing was a way to escape, to enjoy myself.’
His grandfather, though, was a well-known impressionist painter and all the family read the sort of comic books widely celebrated in France. From an early age, Philippe’s idols were Hergé, Uderzo and Franquin and when, at the age of 17, he opted for Art school, he was given full family support. ‘From the day I went to Art school my life changed,’ he smiles. ‘I suddenly met people like me … people who were dedicated to the same things I was.’
For two years he studied at Beaune, a local college, before – interrupted by a year of National service – he transferred for three years to Lyon, with its emphasis at the time on abstract painting. One of the school’s most distinguished teachers was the illustrator Jean Claverie, however, acknowledged by Philippe as a great influence. So, too, during his exchange-studentship to Hornsey College of Art in London, was George Hardy whose advice was simple but transforming. ‘Nothing comes if you don’t think,’ Hardy insisted. ‘Relax, look hard and think.’
It was good advice. Already Philippe’s mind was half made up … about the opportunities offered in England by the picture book, as opposed to the comic book and about the greater openness of approach that was tolerated on this side of the channel. ‘For instance, in France in those days if you wanted to do a wash for a sky background it had to be air-brushed perfectly – there was a strict set of expectations. What was so fantastic for me in England was that the sky could be just a bit of blue with the pen, with the colour so free. I liked that freedom very much.’
His Anglophilia was clinched by a final-year trip to Bologna to show his portfolio. The English publishers were much more enthusiastic than the French. ‘“Whenever you’re in England come and see us,” they said. So I decided I would.’
To England he returned, then, with what few possessions he could muster, already grateful for the support of the indefatigable Sylvie whose job teaching Maths at the French Lycée in Kensington kept them afloat financially while Philippe looked for work.
Thanks to Klaus Flugge, at Andersen, it came quickly – first book jackets, then the chance to work on Martin Waddell’s debut as a picture book writer with The Great Green Mouse Disaster. ‘Straightaway, I had a contract, and an advance as well. Suddenly, Klaus said, “you must really meet Martin to do this book,” so he paid for me and Sylvie to fly to Northern Ireland to spend a week working together. It was amazing! But then Klaus is renowned for this kind of generosity.’ After this came Going West, which was featured on the front cover of BfK No.24 (January 1984) followed quickly by My Dad and Dear Daddy… for which Philippe supplied both the words and the pictures. By now, in professional terms, he was trucking – with books like his own favourites Our House on the Hill and Paul’s Present further enhancing his reputation as a master of the British picture-book who could bring a European flair and perspective to the form. Who could deny the wonderful energy and inventiveness of The Great Escape or Follow That Chimp rooted as they are in a comic-strip tradition, with due deference to the silent movie, which Philippe exploits with magnificent insouciance?
Nor was that all. Alongside books like The Sandal, with Tony Bradman, and A Country Far Away, with Nigel Gray, came line-drawings for longer texts – notably Anne Fine’s Bill’s New Frock and A Country Pancake, not to mention a whole string of books with Hazel Townson. It says a great deal for the Dupasquier professionalism, never mind his shy, unassuming modesty, that when I asked him to indicate what he felt was an especially successful combination of Dupasquier drawings with someone else’s words, he opted for Sam McBratney’s Henry’s Seamouse, published as part of the Longman’s Book Project. Whatever the assignment, he can always be relied upon to give it his closest attention.
This, he emphasises, calls for regular hours and sustained concentration – a working day which begins as soon as the children are out of the house and continues after they’ve arrived home across a week that tends to spill over into Saturday. ‘I’m not actually a workaholic,’ he says, ‘though I am a bit of a loner. At the club where I play tennis, it’s the sport I go for not the social life.’
His studio is neat, orderly and set up to catch the best of the light. So, too, is his house – a prize-winning sixties design at the end of a long, leafy country lane in West Sussex. In its spacious, family feel it could be the home of any successful professional … if you ignore the quality of the artwork on the walls and the unobtrusive signs throughout of occupants who care deeply about how things look.
His approach to his work is disciplined and unfussy – usually a scribbled rough in pencil, followed by line-drawing in pen with waterproof ink (sometimes tracing over earlier work with the help of the light-table he built for himself as a student) and a colour wash to finish. It takes him at least two to three months to produce a book of his own depending on the urgency of ongoing bread-and-butter assignments. ‘Though the work itself is always a pleasure,’ he says, ‘the inspiration that’s needed to constantly surprise yourself isn’t so easy!’ Sometimes, though, he’ll admit to a sudden adrenalin surge – more about confidence than competence – when everything seems to click.
That, certainly, is the feeling given by his latest book No More Television! which provides the front cover of this issue of BfK. Fittingly, it comes from Klaus Flugge’s Andersen Press and offers quintessential Dupasquier-shrewd, domestic observation laced with a wry humour as Dad’s to-and-fro-ing with the obtrusive box, in an attempt to broaden his family’s activities, reaches Ayckbournian levels of farce. ‘Half of it actually happened,’ Philippe laughs. ‘In my family, as with most families, television is incredibly important – and we’ve had the usual problems with it. It seemed to me the children, especially my son, was addicted to it and really didn’t do much else but watch. Also it seemed to make them so bad tempered and aggressive so I made the decision to get rid of it for a while … I put it upstairs in a cupboard for a weekend.’ Did this work? ‘Well, yes … for a time. The trouble was we have a very big old-fashioned receiver and it’s very heavy to carry backwards and forwards. I even wondered if we shouldn’t sell it. But the problem there is that I like to watch it myself!’ Thereby providentially, Dupasquier the Dad provides Dupasquier the illustrator with a neat ironic ending.
While working on this book, Philippe was uneasily aware that the match between his real family and his fictional one was no longer as exact as it had once been. ‘My son is almost grown up now … nearly as tall as I am. And my daughter will soon be a teenager. I felt I was using them rather in the way Hollywood sometimes casts middle-aged actors in an action movie. So I’m in a transition period, I feel, especially as I’ve just turned 40. No More Television! may be the last of this kind of story because I can’t look to my family any more for subject-matter.’
Where will he look, then? ‘Well, when I first started I was drawing on my particular childhood, I think – this only changed when my own family arrived. So will I go back to personal experience? Or observe other children, other people’s children, from the outside? Something very important is happening to me at the moment and I can’t be sure where it will take me. Recently I’ve done work that’s nothing to do with children which I’ve wanted to do for a long time … paintings and pastels which I’d like very much to link with children’s books in some way. What’s so exciting is that it’s something new.’
Also, it must be added, something that’s founded on the proven technique and vision of an illustrator who’s never allowed success to prohibit his taste for experiment. Maybe we should all get a little excited about what’s to come.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Details of books mentioned:
I Can’t Sleep, Walker, 0 7445 2061 4, £3.99 pbk
The Great Green Mouse Disaster, Martin Waddell, Andersen, 0 86264 626 X, £4.99 pbk
Going West, Martin Waddell, Andersen, 0 86264 052 0, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 050473 7, £3.99 pbk
My Dad, Andersen, 0 86264 325 2, £7.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 0972 3, £3.50 pbk
Dear Daddy…, Andersen, 0 86264 097 0, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 050540 7, £3.99 pbk
Our House on the Hill, Andersen, 0 86264 167 5, £8.99
Paul’s Present, Andersen, 0 86264 374 0,£7.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1377 1, £3.99 pbk
The Great Escape, Walker, 0 7445 1365 0, £5.99
Follow That Chimp, Walker, 0 7445 2511 X, £3.99 pbk
The Sandal, Tony Bradman, Puffin, 0 14 054173 X, £3.50 pbk
A Country Far Away, Nigel Gray, Andersen, 0 86264 204 3, £8.99
Bill’s New Frock, Anne Fine, Methuen, 0 416 12152 7, £7.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 0305 9, £2.99 pbk
A Country Pancake, Anne Fine, Mammoth, 0 7497 0567 1, £2.99 pbk
Henry’s Seamouse, Longman, 0 582 12124 8, £2.75
No More Television!, Andersen, 0 86264 508 5, £8.99