Robert Ingpen is a keeper of the imagination. That’s the potent image that I take away from an intense and absorbing interview with this Australian giant amongst illustrators whose work over the past 50 years has displayed a rare and engrossing discipline, craftsmanship and singularity of vision. That’s how I describe him later to Colin Webb, his collaborator on the magnificent Palazzo Editions (published here by Templar) of unabridged children’s classics which Robert is currently re-imagining for a new generation of readers.
The importance of keeping the imagination alive and healthy – be it his or his readers’ – weaves in and out of our discussion. So, too, does his exploration, as an illustrator, of how to build ‘imaginative spaces’ between ‘the idea that the words convey and the image that the pictures give you’ for the reader to ‘play in… colour in’ and make a story their own. So, too, does his commitment to revitalising and passing on our imaginative heritage – be it myths, legends, folktales or literature and art. The dreamer in Robert is always present and the dreams feel compellingly real.
He tells me, for instance, over the clamour of coffee cups and conversation in the foyer of Newcastle’s Hotel du Vin, about the ‘College of Great Belief’, a body that meets in ‘pigeon houses in the south of France’ and ‘cares for all storybook characters whoever they are’. The College ‘takes on submissions by… characters, who think they have been misinterpreted, misunderstood or dealt with badly… Little Red Riding Hood’s submission,’ he believes, ‘has been held up pending advocates on both sides. Someday someone’s going to come along with the imagination to advocate her case. I do think,’ he adds, ‘that we have to have a haven where the arguments can be made for or against storybook characters to ensure that they have a continued life, whether they are flawed or not…’ The idea of the College, first mooted inThe Dreamkeeper (1995) – a letter to his granddaughter Alice Elisabeth, has clearly grown in Robert’s imagination as ‘a way of wrapping facts in a unique fiction to conserve the characters of a story’ and the story itself.
We look back to his childhood in the 1940s in the coastal city of Geelong, Victoria, Australia where his father ran a market supply business and his mother, a trained milliner, danced competitively and played the piano. It was a happy time filled with storytelling, books and drawing. A neighbour and portrait photographer Marjorie Woods (‘a white witch [who] could tell the future’) introduced him to stories, apparently ‘reading’ from a ‘very old red book’ called Tim Pippin in Giant Land, but actually ‘making the stories up… I thought this was the most wonderful, wonderful thing possible… She taught me… how to use [my] imagination without fear’, how to go with a thought that was ‘a bit lateral and crazy and off to the side… and that was the beginning.’
Majorie Woods’ ‘magic’ and her ‘fearless imagination’ were initially ‘converted’ by Robert into pictures telling stories, and the ‘storytelling play of a childhood gang of four’. An ancient oak tree in the back garden became ‘anything we wanted… a castle… a galleon… or a circus tent’ by building ‘platforms and tree houses and all sorts of things’. Robert ‘always had a story to tell’. Whatever company he kept, ‘people would gather round and want me to tell them a story… So I was always inviting people to use their imagination and come with me on a journey… And I don’t think I’ve stopped since.’
In secondary school, Robert’s storytelling didn’t ‘translate into writing’. His English teacher ‘didn’t understand’ his approach to narrative: his belief that by creating ‘a fictional outer wrapper’ for a truth or a fact that spoke to people’s imaginations, ‘people would understand more about the facts (and themselves) as a result of unwrapping them through story’. Robert already saw art as a craft – the ‘servant’ of story and a bridge to the imagination. Fortunately, an art and a music teacher recognised his talent, ‘opening doors’ and providing him with ‘some needed space’. (‘How grateful can you be for that?’ he reflects.)
Moving to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (1955-58), Robert specialized in ‘The Art of the Book’. Here, he ‘made it a project’ to learn about ‘everything that went into a book’ from papermaking, bookbinding and editing to the discipline and intellectual ‘rehearsal time’ needed to tell stories visually. Evenings spent working for a lithographic printer versed him in the technical aspects of off-set printing. The book, he now knew, was ‘an art form… but there was no museum for displaying the art… Instead, it could be found in a library, in a book store… or in someone’s possession.’
Recruited by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation) as a communications designer, Robert turned his storytelling skills to a practical purpose: the transmission of new scientific discoveries to an unscientific public – farmers and fishermen – who needed to understand them to put them to use in industrial practice. He found himself ‘directing [his] whole life to explaining environment, explaining ecology, explaining man’s role within nature, not beyond it’, and finding simple, imaginative ways of ‘packaging’ scientific research in ‘layers of invention’ that invited the public to ‘unwrap a story or a set of pictures’ – like ‘pass the parcel’ – to discover for themselves new ‘ways of looking at our landscape in terms of understanding its protection, its delicacy…’ Here he harnessed the imaginative power of local lore and ‘old stories’, reframing them to communicate new research – a technique he was to use later in Mexico and Peru with the United Nations.A lifelong passion for environmental and heritage conservation was kindled that has run parallel to Robert’s work as a children’s writer and illustrator. It is visible in commissioned murals, tapestries, and sculpture throughout Victoria and nationally in commemorative postage stamps and adult books, and in his work as a founder of the Australian Conservation Society and a freelance design consultant. It is there, too, in his first prize winning illustrations for the modern Australian children’s classic – the late Colin Thiele’s Storm-Boy (1974). In this story of an isolated beachcomber’s son and an orphaned pelican, Storm-Boy learns to ‘read’ the landscape of the ‘wild strip’ where he lives between the Coorong and the sea – ‘the strange scribbly writing on the sandhills and beaches…’ This vast, bleak setting for the story’s action is what Robert characteristically chooses to picture – not the action itself.
‘You never lose sight of the landscape,’ Robert notes – be it the new landscape of Australia or the older landscapes of world myths and classics. How Australians, a ‘displaced’ people, ‘engage with the Aboriginals, the Dreamtime, the animals and the whole of this land’ – ‘big cultural issues that are equally as important as water or lack of it’ – is an ongoing concern. Sometimes he invites us to consider the ‘poetry’ of the bush: in his artwork for the Victorian ballad Clancy of the Overflow (1982), for instance, about the ‘closest person – idea – we’ve got to King Arthur and Camelot’, a ‘fellow who doesn’t exist, except we can hear him from our cities because he’s the voice of the horseman with the cattle in the outback being free. We’ll never see him because he’s just over the next horizon. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not real!’ Or, sometimes, the hidden, secret history of a land inhabited by an ancient magic: in his illustrations for Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars (1988)– a ‘spiritual investigation of the land, of the Aboriginal people and imagination,’ and in his modern folktale The Voyage of the Poppykettle (1980) about a race of miniature Peruvian fishermen – ‘boat people’ – who flee Spanish persecution in a clay poppykettle and discover Australia, and their subsequent explorations of their new home in The Unchosen Land (1981) – an ‘unending’ saga that Robert continues today.
As Robert journeys abroad into the landscapes of the classics – Neverland, The Riverbank, the Wild Wood, or Wonderland, he also journeys into the landscapes of their creators’ minds. Using that ‘fearless imagination, I can have these authors come and stay with me, sit with me as I’m designing, planning and illustrating the book…’ This is typical Ingpen: an apt wrapping of fact with fiction to describe the rehearsal or dreamtime getting to ‘know’ authors and their characters, understand a text’s ‘messages’ and ‘balladry’, and experiment with design and illustration to ‘enhance and align’ these and give readers ‘extra information for the imagination to play with’ and imaginative spaces between the words and pictures to inhabit.
It is this close attention to authorial intent, to character psychology, to place and to the sensibilities and expectations of modern readers raised on video and cinematography that gives Robert’s classic re-visionings their power, immediacy and energy. Look at his Alice and her ‘amazed’ yet ‘apprehensive’ body language when faced with decisions about ‘unknown substances’ inviting her to ‘Eat me’ or ‘Drink me’. Look at his portraits inTreasure Island – some cropped and close-up, textured, filled with the ‘beautiful hidden detail that Rembrandt leaves you to imagine’… the wrinkles, the lines around the eyes, the eyes themselves, or a ‘shadow thrown over them’ – all ’part of engaging people in exploring’. Look at his aerial shots of the classic landscapesor the carefully researched street scenes of Shakespeare and Dickens’ London for the ‘His Work and His World’ series which also refer back to the‘whimsy, fun and social commentary’ of a Bruegel where ‘nothing is happening and everything is happening’ and you are ‘compelled to go into the picture and search for Wally’. Always, for this Hans Christian Andersen Award winning illustrator, his craft – his use of perspective, composition, psychological focus, surprise and mystery – is directed at capturing young readers’ imaginations with the stories he chooses to illustrate and ‘compelling’ them to go beyond words and pictures to become dreamers themselves and live in the ‘unfinished spaces’ between them.
(published by Templar unless otherwise indicated)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 978 1 84011 968 8, £14.99 hbk
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 978 1 84011 501 7, £14.99 hbk
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling, 978 1 84011 718 9, £14.99 hbk
Peter Pan and Wendy, J M Barrie, 978 8 49789 057 1, £14.99 hbk
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, 978 1 84011 114 9, £14.99 hbk
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 978 1 84011 352 5, £14.99 hbk
Dickens: His Work and His World, Michael Rosen, Walker, 978 0 7445 8640 4, £12.99 hbk
Elizabeth Hammill OBE is initiator and co-founder of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books. Currently a Founder Patron and Collection Trust trustee, she is writing about children’s literary museums for a forthcoming publication.